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McCarthy's Musings: 2012 MLS National TV Preview: ESPN, NBC jockey for top billing

The arrival of the Peacock adds a little spice and a lot of cachet to the league's national television landscape.

MLS raised the stakes for its national broadcasts at the exact moment it reached an agreement with NBC Sports last year.

The three-year pact places NBC alongside long-time MLS partner ESPN in this particular realm. It also sets up an intriguing scenario in which the two rival networks will share the stage over the next few years and perhaps position themselves to snatch the package outright when the TV contracts expire at the end of the 2014 season.

Those considerations remain theoretical at this point, but the buzz surrounding NBC's arrival sparked more tangible feelings during the winter. NBC possesses little recent experience in the soccer world – the Olympics take place every four years, after all – as it settles into this new deal. The network has imported several familiar faces and leaned on its own knowledge as it attempts to replicate its impact on the NHL with MLS.

“(The games) will have that indelible NBC stamp on it,” NBC Sports play-by-play man Arlo White said during a conference call on Wednesday. “It's going to look fantastic. It's just not up to us on-air types to make it sing, and I think we've gathered a fantastic team. This is a watershed for Major League Soccer and soccer in general in the United States. And with NBC's involvement, and if we carry this off, as I know we will do with the team we've got behind us, I think we can take soccer broadcasting in the United States to another level. Fans should rest assured that Major League Soccer and its coverage is in very safe hands with NBC, and it's an exciting development for the league.”

NBC will have some work on its hands to meet the high standards set by ESPN. With a true competitor entering the scene, ESPN now possesses further incentive to reinforce its MLS ties and further showcase the league as a key part of its significant group of soccer priorities. Notable improvements to its best-in-class broadcast suggest ESPN will seek to consolidate its current place atop the soccer heap.

As if the presence of two programming giants wasn't enough, MLS can also count on extensive coverage in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and the Univisión family of networks. All of the American broadcast partners will show a combined 89 matches during the course of the campaign, according to a league release.

Canadian fans will receive the best of both worlds as TSN and RDS continue their comprehensive package for another year. The trio of Canadian-based sides will see plenty of their matches on national television, while American sides will also appear in a format that will allow fans north of the border to sample the product on offer from ESPN and NBC.

With a host of significant changes on the television docket for this season, the Musings offers up a detailed look at the scene in 2012.

ESPN/ESPN Deportes

Overview: The Worldwide Leader in Sports returns with a 21-game slate for its 17th season with the league. ESPN (nine matches) and ESPN2 (11 matches) will share the duties, while Deportes will offer Spanish-language broadcasts on those matches and a May 4 clash between Chicago and Chivas USA. Both the All-Star Game and MLS Cup will feature on one of the two networks. 

Talent: Adrian Healey (play-by-play), Ian Darke (play-by-play – selected marquee matches), Taylor Twellman (analyst), Monica Gonzalez (sideline reporter), Max Bretos (host), Alexi Lalas (studio analyst), Kasey Keller (studio analyst – selected matches)

Technical details: A couple of tweaks will supplement the typically high-quality broadcasts. The fundamentals won't change too much (10-11 cameras for a regular game, 16-17 cameras for the big games and the special events), but the focus and the presentation of the broadcast will shift course somewhat.

Coordinating producer for soccer Amy Rosenfeld will use the considerable resources allotted to MLS to provide more perspective to the broadcast. Super slo-mo options and high-end POV cameras with sophisticated lenses will come into use more frequently as ESPN attempts to raise the lofty visual standards it has set in the past.

“I think what we're trying to say to the viewer is that we take the league very seriously,” Rosenfeld said during an interview earlier this week. “We have a lot of soccer properties. Let's be realistic, we're not going to have 22 cameras on a MLS game like they do for the Premier League. But we can certainly do our best to elevate the visuals to move in that direction.”

Twellman will lend a different tone to the broadcast as he slides into the analyst seat John Harkes vacated after last season. The former New England star spent last season learning his trade with J.P. Dellacamera on Philadelphia's local broadcast package and offering his views in the ESPN studio. This transition represents a quick leap up the ladder, but Twellman said he plans to pick his spots as he settles into the role.

“Did I think I'd be doing it this quickly? No,” Twellman said. “Am I looking forward to it? Yeah. From what I've done in a year, I know I want to be the guy who keeps his points to a minimum, makes the broadcast fun and allows the play-by-play guy's voice to really tell the story of the game. I want to contribute when I can and when I should.”

The considerable chemistry between Twellman and Lalas encouraged Rosenfeld to switch up the halftime routine. Lalas will hit the road to offer his viewpoints on site and work in tandem with Twellman. Though Twellman picked up some hosting tricks from his days at Comcast SportsNet New England, this arrangement will mostly focus on the banter and the insight the two combine to share with the viewers.

“Even when we disagree, I think it's interesting and ultimately entertaining,” Lalas said. “I enjoy it. We have a good time.”

All of those adjustments are designed to reinforce the importance of devoting the programming window to MLS and other soccer topics. The inevitable promos to other viewing options will crop up, but the overarching goal remains using the assembled group and the provided visuals to create a destination for diehard supporters and an event-type atmosphere for those viewers just passing through.

“We really want to make the show about soccer,” Rosenfeld said. “We want to bring up topics to engage the fan base – which, by the way, speak up loud and clear and are huge consumers and participants in social media – and talk about topics that are important. It's a qualifying year. Who's going to be on (U.S. coach) Jürgen's (Klinsmann) team? What does MLS do? What does it mean to have DPs (Designated Players)? How can we debate the value of other players who might come over?”

Opening day flourishes: Expect the typical big game, flood-the-zone treatment for Philadelphia's visit to Portland on Monday. Healey and Twellman will call the match from JELD-WEN Field with Gonzalez on the sidelines. Todd Grisham will step in for Bretos to host the studio events from the venue with Lalas and Keller on hand to provide commentary.

Scheduling notes: This year's slate continues the emphasis on highlighting derby matches. Eleven of the matches involve regional rivals, while another fixture involves the high-profile clash between Los Angeles and New York. Those two teams and Seattle feature most regularly, but smaller markets like Kansas City and Portland draw hosting responsibilities as well.

Other tidbits: Rosenfeld said the network identifies particular games to spotlight with extra resources during the season, but she noted that those plans may change as the year progresses. “We reserve the right – as the schedule develops and as the stories develop – to maybe change that out,” Rosenfeld said. “It'll be interesting to see how the Houston stadium looks and feels and how that atmosphere (develops). We've seen that Kansas City can be really great. As the season develops, we may actually change our plans and blow out a couple of other games. We do that in tandem with the U.S. schedule as that starts to unfold.” …  Healey and Twellman may have only called a few games together, but the two men have a shared history that should help them form their on-air partnership. “Adrian's interesting because I kind of like to remind him that he's a little bit older than me,” Twellman said. “He used to call my games, so I like to give him (some stick).” … June looms as a particular busy soccer month for ESPN with Euro 2012, MLS and U.S. national team matches all on the docket. Rosenfeld said the production personnel on MLS matches would remain mostly the same during that time period, but Lalas will find himself shuttling back and forth between responsibilities. “That's going to be fun and a lot of work,” Lalas said. “I prepare to go to battle in a certain sense whenever I do Euros, the World Cup and stuff like that. I know it's a tremendous amount of work, but I have fun the entire time.”

Five games to mark on the calendar: New York at Los Angeles (May 5 – ESPN); FC Dallas at Houston (June 16); Los Angeles at Chivas USA (August 12); Portland at Seattle (October 7 – ESPN); Seattle at Los Angeles (October 28 – ESPN)

NBC Sports

Overview: The Peacock will start the first of its three-year pact with 38 regular season games on NBC Sports Network and three further matches on NBC (the highest number of matches on broadcast TV since 2002). In addition to that extensive schedule, five more playoff games will air between the two networks. Every broadcast on both networks will offer some form of pre- and post-game coverage.

Talent: Arlo White (play-by-play), Kyle Martino (analyst), Russ Thaler (host – selected matches), Robbie Earle (studio analyst)

Technical details: Executive producer Sam Flood and coordinating producer/director Pierre Moossa will employ some of the same techniques that have drawn rave reviews on NHL and NFL coverage without distracting from the game presentation. Several people with soccer experience have joined the production team to supplement the talent already on hand. NBC will use between eight and 10 cameras on broadcasts and Moossa said he plans to focus primarily on the basics of the game without introducing gimmicks into the broadcast.

“The most important philosophy we have (at NBC Sports) is storytelling, and making sure we treat a sport honestly, and put the sport first,” Flood said during a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. “And to do that we treat the games on the NBC Sports Network the same as we treat them with NBC Sports: first-class production and storytelling and first-class people in front of the camera and behind the scenes.”

Flood and Moossa flipped through the NHL playbook and opted to position Martino between the benches instead of up in the booth with White. A dedicated monitor and a specially-constructed platform should give Martino some glimpse of the tactical nuances that are harder to pick up at a lower vantage point, but questions still persist about how this information-gathering arrangement will work under duress.

All involved parties expressed ample confidence in the setup after undertaking a pair of practice broadcasts during the league broadcast meetings in Orlando last month.

“Being able to see these one-on-one individual battles and being able to grab a lot more information that I was able to grab up in the booth (is an advantage),” Martino said. “The challenge will be to make sure to not let what my bread and butter and what I'm used to doing suffer, but actually enhance my commentary by being able to give little bits of information that I wasn't able to give before.”

White's experience with a one-man booth during his two years in Seattle should provide a helpful bridge if trouble arises. White excelled as a lone voice on the Sounders FC local broadcasts, but he said he relishes the opportunity to partner with ex-U.S. international Martino and rely on his insight during the run of play.

“The beautiful thing about this situation: as a play-by-play guy, every now and again, you have to ask somebody else,” White said. “It's hard to come down on a refereeing decision on a reckless tackle by a midfield player or a defender. As a play-by-play guy, it's hard to come down and say, 'I think this.' But I will always have Kyle, who knows the game inherently, has great knowledge, is erudite and will be able to explain things from his vantage point. I can defer to Kyle and ask the question, 'what do you think, should it have been a red card, was that a penalty?' That's going to make my job not necessarily easier, but more enjoyable by working together.”

Opening day flourishes: A four-man crew will work Sunday's opener between New York and FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park. Earle will share the desk with Thaler during pre-game, halftime and post-game, while Martino and White will take up their normal positions to describe the match.

Scheduling notes: MLS Cup combatants Houston and Los Angeles will appear seven times each and the Pacific Northwest trio will receive plenty of screen time, but most of the other teams will cycle through at one point or another. Sporting Kansas City earned four home dates for LIVESTRONG Sporting Park with the atmosphere created in its new venue last season. One novel twist: NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air a tripleheader during the season's final weekend.

Other tidbits: Thaler (a familiar face to D.C. United fans from his days at Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic) will add to his NBC Sports Talk duties by starting off as the host, but other personalities will likely take their turn at the desk as the season progresses. … Expect the pre-game shows to focus primarily on the hot topics of the day with plenty of opinionated takes from Earle and Martino. … Earle will also handle selected matches and retain his spot on Portland's local television broadcasts. … There are plans to integrate social media into the broadcasts later in the season.

Five games to mark on the calendar: D.C. United at Houston (May 12 – first match at BBVA Compass Stadium); Los Angeles at Houston (May 26); Seattle at Portland (September 15 - NBC); Seattle at Vancouver (September 29); New York at Philadelphia (October 27 – NBC)

TSN/RDS

Overview: Canada's premier sports networks return for another season in both English and French on TSN/TSN2/RDS/RDS2. The schedule remains split into two distinct components: a batch of 36 self-produced games involving the three Canadian teams and another significant group of matches featuring American sides. All in all, more than 50 games will air between the regular season, the major events and the playoffs.

Talent: TSN: Luke Wileman (play-by-play), Jason deVos (analyst), Perry Solkowski (sideline reporter); RDS: Claudine Douville and Jean Gounelle (play-by-play), Michel Y. Lacroix and Patrick Leduc (analysts).

Technical details: TSN will produce every game involving a Canadian side with Toronto-based Wileman and deVos on site. The production quality generally appears on par to the national productions in the U.S., a fact that shouldn't come as a surprise given TSN's extensive experience with the NHL. Matches involving the American clubs are American-produced. The output is basically a plug-and-play version of the American broadcast, similar to what NBC Sports Network does with CBC and various Comcast SportsNet stations during the NHL playoffs.

Opening day flourishes: In addition to a season preview show scheduled to air tonight on TSN2, Wileman, deVos and Solkowski will take part in a pre-game show as part of TSN's coverage of Montréal's visit to Vancouver on Saturday. RDS will also send its crew to B.C. Place for the Impact's MLS bow.

Scheduling notes: All three Canadian sides will receive plenty of air time, while D.C. United (with Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario in the fold), Los Angeles and New York will all feature multiple times on the broadcasts involving American teams.

Five games to mark on the calendar: Montréal at Vancouver (March 10); Toronto FC at Montréal (April 7); Seattle at Montréal (June 16 – Stadé Saputo opener); Vancouver at Toronto (July 11); Montréal at Toronto FC (Oct. 28)

Univisión (Galavisión/Telefutura/Univisión Deportes)

Overview: The Spanish-language giants return for another year with an exclusive 27-game schedule spread over three networks, including the brand-new sports-only channel set to launch soon. Most of the matches will air in the now familiar Sunday night time slot. In addition to the regular season slate, one of the networks will air the MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

Talent: Jorge Perez Navarro (play-by-play), Diego Balado (analyst), Ivan Kasanzew (field reporter)

Technical details: The introduction of HD over the past couple of years has noticeably improved the overall quality of the broadcasts, though Balado and Perez Navarro do call the games from a studio in Miami instead of on site.

Scheduling notes: As usual, the focus remains firmly trained on clubs that particularly appeal to the target demographic. Every match involves one of seven teams: Chivas USA, Chicago, D.C. United, FC Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.

Five games to mark on the calendar: D.C. United at Philadelphia (June 16); New York at New England (July 8); Chivas USA at Los Angeles (July 21); New York at D.C. United (August 29); Los Angeles at San Jose (October 21)

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