By Kyle McCarthy
MLS peered into the future of its local television broadcasts during the offseason as it searched for new ways to improve its product.
The new image arrived in high definition.
Every team in MLS will produce its local broadcasts in high definition in 2010, according to a directive handed down by the league this winter.
The mandate cements a movement towards HD started by HDNet's coverage from 2003 to 2008, continued by ESPN's move to HD in 2007 and accelerated by local HD broadcasts in markets such as Salt Lake City, Seattle and Washington, D.C. over the past couple of seasons.
MLS officials decided to make the move to HD production in an effort to compete with the high-quality broadcasts of English Premier League matches and supply fans with a better local television product that reflects the improving quality of play on the field, according to a league source with knowledge of reasons behind the move to universal HD production.
While the move to HD production reflects the increasing preference for HD in college and professional sports, the shift also creates some logistical hurdles for clubs and league officials to overcome as the 2010 approaches.
Cost presents one pressing concern for the individual clubs. Each team negotiates its own local television contract, coordinates with local vendors to rent production equipment, hires its broadcast and production talent and foots the ensuing bill for cameras, production trucks and other expenses. The increased cost of HD production – one report last week pegged the bump in the 15-20 percent range, though one industry insider said the differential could result in a spike between 20 and 30 percent – could impact clubs in other production areas.
Finding an economical way to produce television broadcasts isn't a new concept in a league where teams often have different ideas about how to produce a match. All clubs must meet minimum production standards set by the league, but each team has leeway to exceed the standard to provide a better broadcast by supplying more cameras and introducing special effects. Different production approaches create different price tags and quality standards for each broadcast. Home teams generally shoulder the expenses of producing and supplying a broadcast feed for a given match, though visiting teams occasionally assume some of the costs depending on the situation and the type of production quality offered by the home team. The cost-sharing arrangement between home and away teams will not change for 2010, but the production value at the local level will improve considerably in certain markets.
Although every club will produce its matches in HD, fans will still have to watch certain matches in standard definition. While many local television partners possess the capability and the desire to broadcast in HD, some partners do not offer HD channels and others do not boast the bandwidth to air every match in HD. Circumstances may dictate affiliate changes in some markets – Kansas City parted ways with the Time Warner-based Metro Sports to hook up with the widely available and HD friendly CW affiliate KCWE earlier this month – and push other teams to ensure long-time partners – MSG will air every New York home match in HD, for example – take the plunge into HD. In addition to those concerns on the local level, there are questions about how many matches on the Direct Kick package will air in HD to fans across the country on local cable and national satellite providers.
Club and league officials convened for the annual broadcast meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. last week to hash out a few concerns for the upcoming season and discuss the potential obstacles ahead with the move to HD production. MLS plans to work with its teams to evaluate and increase their HD television options locally and secure the proper rental equipment from vendors. Even with collaborative efforts in place, there are a series of logistical issues requiring careful attention from all parties as the season approaches.
All of that hard work will pay off as fans experience more MLS games in HD this season. ESPN remains committed to showing games in HD, while Fox Soccer Channel will air every match in its package on its long-awaited and recently debuted HD channel. Local affiliates in several markets are expected to join those national carriers in offering HD matches this season.
Further improvement beckons in the future as MLS continues to grow and strives to provide its fans with the product they demand on and off the field. The HD production mandate and the associated increase in broadcast quality represents a significant step towards achieving at least one of those goals.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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