This weekend, Fox and ESPN will begin another season as Major League Soccer's American-based English-language television partners.
IN 2016, TV ratings were up 25 percent on ESPN and 37 percent on Fox – though that number was slightly inflated by Fox showing matches on its broadcast network for the first time and ESPN using Euro 2016 games as a lead-in.
Still, the signs are positive for TV viewership, and both ESPN and Fox are bullish as the league opens up its 22nd season.
Ahead of the 2017 kickoff, Goal spoke with lead soccer producers for both networks: Amy Rosenfeld, senior coordinating producer overseeing all soccer at ESPN, and Jonty Whitehead, executive producer of soccer for Fox Sports.
What’s new in 2017?
ESPN will send a sideline reporter to every game in 2017, which was only the case for around 10 matches last season. It will also re-examine its halftime agenda, and look for more opportunities to bolster the profile of star players. Fox will attempt to utilize more advanced stats and more innovative lineup graphics.
Rosenfeld: One area that I felt we were lacking in 2016 was the presence of a reporter on every match. As a fan there would be moments where I wanted clarity on something. You can try to get that information without the reporter but it’s clunky and it takes longer and it may not be relayed exactly the right way if you’re going through four or five people. I think we were lacking in that area and i think we’re really well positioned to improve that in 2017.
Another area where we’ve really been giving a lot of thought to: I’m not one thousand percent convinced that every halftime of our productions, that we need to do around-the-league highlights. Whether it’s bringing in more guests, whether it’s pursuing more of the news around MLS and soccer in the United States, we’re going to sort of play around with that.
I think another area ESPN needs to improve its MLS coverage is a little more player personalization. I think every producer struggles with the idea of trying to build stars and I think that we can do a better job in ‘17 than we did in ‘16. One of the things we’ve recognized is Taylor Twellman has a really great rapport with a lot of coaches and players around the league and we may be able to exploit that in a good way to be able to star-build, hero-build some of the players to a greater degree.
Whitehead: (During the 2016 MLS Cup on Fox) we had augmented lineups, so we superimposed the players themselves onto the pitch to analyze the tactics pregame, so we’re hoping to include that within our coverage on a regular basis this season.
We’re also always striving to look at new statistics. I had a long conversation with the supplier of our statistics, Opta, this week and we’re looking to introduce a new statistic which i think will be one of the up-and-coming ways of looking at soccer in the years ahead: expected goals. It’s a really good chance to compare strikers who are on form and off form. We’ll take time to explain to our viewers what this value indicates.
ESPN added Julie Stewart-Binks as a sideline reporter, as well as Herculez Gomez as an analyst and Sebastian Salazar as a studio host. Fox, meanwhile, will remain largely unchanged, but with Katie Witham stepping in for Stewart-Binks as a sideline reporter.
Rosenfeld: To be able to add somebody with the qualities of Julie Stewart-Binks, with her level of experience with MLS, that was an added bonus to be able to have somebody with her qualities.
Not only adding Julie, but to be able to get Herculez Gomez, a player who just retired, his depth of experience in multiple leagues and the national team, and to add somebody like Sebastian Salazar, who has a lot of experience in MLS to be able to be part of the talent pool gives us more depth.
Whitehead: We’re delighted to have Katie involved with our group. She’ll take a pivotal role in our broadcast going forward this season. She’s not new to the league, she’s been around the league, she knows the ins and outs of it over a number of years so we’re delighted to welcome her on board.
After utilizing its goalpost camera for select matches last year, ESPN will attempt to have it present for every match in 2017. Fox will also look to selectively implement some unique camera angles that viewers saw in last year’s MLS Cup.
Rosenfeld: We instituted a camera setup in the goalpost – two cameras per goal at different heights and we used it in select games. I became very reliant on those cameras and would feel dejected – especially when there would be a close play in and around the net – I was kicking myself wishing we had the cameras on every match. So for 2017 the plan is, pending a little bit of an issue with some stadium compatibility, to have the goalpost cameras on every match.
Whitehead: We managed to get some really clever camera angles within that MLS Cup coverage with the dirt cam, so again, we’re looking to enhance our camera coverage.
One of my jobs is working with a budget and identifying games where we feel we can add extra value … really identifying those Seattle-Portland games, those games that are on Fox, those games that are going to have a really nice lead-in, to go the extra mile to spend that little bit more, and include some of those cameras, some of those tools that we know work that we’ve already tried out in our coverage last season.
On putting together the TV schedule
Rosenfeld: You try to have some balance. There’s not a requirement to see every team, but my hope is there would be enough parity in the league that there would be a desire to see every team. But there’s no secret that there are certain teams that rate better than other teams and have a better national image than a regional draw. And balancing the consistent “Soccer Sunday” model but also trying to do some special edition games where ESPN can benefit from a really good lead-in of another soccer match. So when we do the ICC (International Champions Cup) tournament in the summer, can we pair some ICC matches with MLS that make sense? It’s a really tricky puzzle.
Whitehead: The programming department looks not just at the rights to MLS that we have, not only for all the soccer properties, but all the other sporting properties that we have and it’s like a big jigsaw. There’s so much to consider. We do the very best with the schedule that we see and we try and promote it within all our other soccer properties so that we’re getting the maximum exposure for our games.
On how to grow the TV audience for MLS
Rosenfeld: I think we have a twofold responsibility here. One is we have to do better at really exploiting the beauty and athleticism of the game through our camera placement and the utilization of replays, framing, that nitty-gritty aspect of television. And then I do believe that we can grow ratings if we can get folks who are not the core fans. The growth is going to be in expanding beyond that core fandom for MLS and I hope that actually having people care about the players – who they are, what they are, especially players that could be in the mix for the national team – I think that may draw a bigger audience than this core that we already have.
Whitehead: We’ve got some additional storylines I think – the fascination of two new franchises coming into the league. We’re obviously intent to tell their story. We’re always keen to see the new DPs that come into the league, to tell those stories. I think those are the tales that really help grow the league. It’s not just about the stars, it’s about the clubs, it’s about the history, it’s about the new boys on the block. It’s that narrative that is growing, the new history that’s being made.
Rosenfeld: I think it’s really important for there to be spectacle in the games. When you see a Seattle or a Portland or a Kansas City or Orlando in their new building or Atlanta with 30,000 season tickets sold, I think that when somebody is flipping around who maybe isn’t a huge soccer fan, who doesn’t really know MLS, if they see this huge spectacle, maybe we can get them to stick around for a few minutes and maybe we can start slowly building a bigger rating.
Whitehead: We want to build on the upward trend that we see in viewers, both in the stadium and on television, and build on our brand. Where Fox Sports really positioned themselves is the authentic American voice of the sport in this country. This is in effect the authentic soccer league in this country so I think the two really work hand-in-hand together really well.
Rosenfeld: I really personally am very bullish on MLS ratings and I wouldn’t throw that out there haphazardly. I’ve been involved in soccer for a really long time and there’s no question there is upward growth, it’s an incredibly attractive demographic that is the core soccer audience. I think any time ratings are up on anything, that is a really good sign because the industry is changing, viewing habits are changing.