MLS Kickoff 2016: Fox Sports, ESPN, UniMás Ready Enhancements for New Campaign

At-home workflows, miked-up coaches, goal-post cams among tech highlights

It’s New Year’s Day for soccer fans across North America, and the continent’s premier soccer league is set to see a further boost in the quality of its national television product. On Sunday, Major League Soccer (MLS) kicks off its 21st season and the second year of its current media-rights agreement with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision Deportes.

The MLS season kicks off with a full slate of games on Sunday, including a rematch of last year's MLS Cup Final between the defending champion Portland Timbers and Kei Kamara the Columbus Crew (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET).

The MLS season kicks off with a full slate of games on Sunday, including a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup Final between defending champion Portland Timbers and Kei Kamara and the Columbus Crew (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET).

Under the new deal, the league streamlines its national-rights package, targeting Friday nights (with UniMás) and Sundays (with a doubleheader across ESPN and Fox Sports) each weekend. This year, all three networks are investing in even greater levels of technological advances to help raise the level of productions on nationally televised games.

This week, the media partners announced uniform acceptance of placing microphones on coaches, bringing a new level of access to the action on the field. Each network is also planning to give its own flavor to the proceedings: ESPN will regularly use its innovative goal-post cam, Fox Sports will deploy its roving handheld camera on a MōVI M10 three-axis gimbal, and Univision remains committed to its resources-saving at-home production workflow.

“The ability to mike the coaches and the utilization of the goal-post cameras are areas where we are very bullish about the positive impact to the production,” says ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld. “And, by the way, these enhancements don’t happen without a league partner willing to take a few leaps of faith; MLS has been shoulder to shoulder with ESPN on all ideas and making them a reality.”

Here’s a deeper dive at what each of MLS’s three national partners has up their sleeves:

ESPN Puts Goal-Post Cam in Regular Rotation
ESPN kicks off its 21st season of Major League Soccer coverage this Sunday with a 2015 MLS Cup rematch between the victorious Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew FC. The game will also mark the regular-season debut of ESPN’s goal-post cam and the first time ESPN will mike the head coaches on the sidelines.

espn-logoGoal-post cam comprises two cameras that slide up inside each goal post and a small mirror system for each camera that helps ESPN get the best shot. The cameras are hardwired via fiber to the production truck.

The technology, exclusive to ESPN, was first tested at the 2014 MLS All-Star Game; the process of research, development, league sign-off, and regular-season deployment has taken nearly two seasons. This season, ESPN will travel camera-equipped goal posts to selected matches.

“We are really excited about the technical additions to ESPN’s coverage of MLS this season,” says Rosenfeld. “We have consistently pledged to be additive to the viewer’s experience and to enhance the documentation of the match without being disruptive or ‘in the way’.”

This season, 29 of the 33 MLS on ESPN telecast windows are on Sunday afternoon, establishing a consistent programming window for the league on ESPN. The 33 regular-season matches will air on ESPN (28) or ESPN2 (5) and ESPN Deportes. All matches will be streamed live on WatchESPN and in Spanish on ESPN Deportes+.

Fox Sports Readies Specialty Cameras for Its First MLS Cup
This fall, Fox Sports will conclude year two of its eight-year MLS-rights deal by televising the MLS Cup for the first time. In the meantime, Fox is looking to build on its successful first season of MLS coverage, in which viewership on FS1 increased 40% over the previous year. In addition, Fox Sports has moved four of its MLS matches to the Fox broadcast network this season.

Fox-Sports“We are very much anticipating another exciting season of MLS, and we are extremely eager to build on last season’s inaugural success,” says Francisco Contreras, director of field operations, Fox Sports. “We were so happy with the outcome. We anticipate exceeding the success we had in the first year, and we are looking forward to being a part of the MLS family.”

In all, Fox Sports will produce 34 MLS matches: four on Fox, 30 on FS1, and Fox Deportes also carrying the 34 matches in Spanish. Most matches will kick off on Sundays in primetime. In addition to MLS Cup, Fox Sports will televise selected MLS Cup Playoff matches.

Expected to be deployed this season are several of the tech toys used on Fox’s marquee MLS games last season, such as its MLS opener and the MLS All-Star Game. A few new elements will be added at the MLS Cup this year, including a roving handheld camera on a MōVI M10 three-axis gimbal, Inertia Unlimited Dirtcams, goal-post cams, and high-speed cameras.

“During the regular season, we won’t do much different [since] we will exhaust much of our best resources for the big MLS Cup game, where we will deploy special technical features, such as the MōVI camera, the Dirtcams, and high-speed cameras,” says Contreras. “We feel that we can have a very successful regular season using our basic technical resources and still build on last year’s success.”

Fox Sports’ coverage begins Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, with the Seattle Sounders host Sporting Kansas City on FS1 and Fox Deportes.

Univision Fills Friday-Night Slate With At-Home Production
Thirty-six games on the league’s national television calendar are slotted for Friday nights on Spanish-language UniMás.

unimasUnivision Deportes will again produce its slate of games using its at-home production workflow, supported by a The Switch-provided infrastructure connecting all MLS venues and Univision’s studios in Miami.

On match nights, Univision places 12 cameras in the stadium and backhauls all the individual feeds via fiber to Miami, where the producer, director, technical director, replay ops, audio technicians, graphics engineers, and more are on hand to put the show together.

Onsite, Univision deploys NEP Productions’ 53-ft. Pacific production unit, which supports eight Sony HDC-1550 cameras (in studio configuration with 101X and 86X lenses), two additional handhelds, and two goal cameras. Pacific provides the cabling and power for the cameras and contains the necessary encoders and decoders.

Pacific also offers robust audio support, providing two-16 channel embedders mixed in Miami. Comms is also managed in Miami, giving the engineer the ability to label control panels each week as needed. For this, Pacific houses three RVON cards for comms and a GPIO for tallies.

As for personnel, Univision will travel only its on-air talent, a producer, and an engineer. The rest of the positions — including all the camera positions — will be filled by local freelance talent.