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ESPN looking to “own the morning” with MLS Is Back Tournament 

The main soccer field at the ESPN Wide World of Sport Complex in Orlando (Credit: MLS)

ESPN is confident that the early kickoffs during Major League Soccer’s MLS Is Back Tournament will lead to significant domestic television ratings during the mornings for the sports network this summer.

MLS’s quarantined tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sport Complex in Orlando, Florida, is scheduled to begin on July 8. The competition, which is being held without spectators, has been hit hard by the withdrawal of FC Dallas following 11 positive Covid-19 cases in the team’s traveling party.

In an attempt to avoid the hottest parts of the day, games in Orlando will take place at 9am, 8pm, and 10.30pm ET.

ESPN is broadcasting all seven matches in the 9am window during the group stages. ESPN executives believe having relatively rare live sports content during the mornings in the coming weeks could prove a ratings winner.

ESPN’s vice president of production Amy Rosenfeld told reporters: “I think it’s ‘own the morning’, like Breakfast at Wimbledon or what the Premier League has been able to do [on NBC Sports]. I think [it could be] destination viewing in the morning. We experienced it with the World Cup. There is now this ability to multitask to do your workday stuff and be able to consume soccer. This is new territory for us – we’ve never done MLS in the morning. I’m excited about it because it’s new and it’s like a cool destination.” 

MLS senior vice president of media Seth Bacon is bullish about the ratings possibilities for the entire tournament, with his optimism not surprising given the strong ratings bumps other original sports content, either live competition or documentary programming, has generated during the pandemic.

“We have expectations that we’re going to have an opportunity to reach a whole new fanbase,” Bacon said. “We know that we have a unique opportunity to deliver something to our fans because some of the competition won’t be there, at least at the outset.”

As well as broadcasting the tournament, ESPN is also producing feeds for MLS’s domestic broadcast partners Fox Sports and the Spanish-language TUDN, as well as a global feed for international broadcast partners.

Further details about the broadcasts were revealed in a conference call with reporters, including the fact there will be no artificial crowd noise piped in, a decision that was taken in partnership with MLS team supporters’ groups. The United Soccer League is adopting a similar strategy with its ESPN broadcasts.

To compensate for this – and the lack of crowds – there will also be enhanced audio initiatives for fans be able to hear virtually all of the dialogue between the players and coaches at the venue. This will include putting microphones in the turf. Players and coaches will not have microphones on their bodies, however.

“We decided collectively that we thought using the natural sounds of the game, and the aggressive audio plan that ESPN has put in place, would allow for people to get closer to the game and provide a more authentic experience for the venue we’re playing in,” Bacon said.

There will also be enhanced visual effects, including increased aerial coverage via drones, goalpost cameras, and super slow-motion cameras behind the nets.

“I’m really excited about aerial coverage, that is something that has been under-utilized in the sport,” Rosenfeld said. “Frankly, it is expensive, which is a big part of why it is under-utilized. But you have that ‘above’ feel, where you really see the artistry and tactical nature of that sport. I think being able to really exploit the overhead coverage will be important.”

A large digital screen at the main soccer field at the ESPN Wide World of Sport Complex will enable rolling advertising for national and club partners, as well as interactive fan elements.

Rosenfeld said the production costs will be a “massive commitment” for both ESPN and MLS.

“You are going to be able to tell the difference. This is more than double [in costs] what we would typically use on an MLS regular-season match,” she said. “We felt, with our partners at MLS, that MLS needed to be back in a big way. People are starved for sports and we want to deliver this beautiful game in a big, big way – and that costs big bucks, there’s no two ways about it. This is a commitment to soccer in this country.”