Friday, February 15, 2008

MLS turning on and tuning in

Dave Lifton over at the US Soccer Players Association has an absolutely fantastic Q&A with MLS and Soccer United Marketing executive producer Michael Cohen. (See the full story here.) Thanks to for the tip.

This story is a great rundown on everything from why Brand Beckham (and the other guys on the field, remember them, the Beckettes) will be getting so many nationally televised games to the mechanics of camera angles, as well as formerly radical US TV coverage ideas that are now being emulated around the world.

Here are a few of my favorite highlights:

USSoccerPlayers: You were talking about working with people who are experienced in producing soccer. How do you balance the expectations of the casual American fan, who is used to a specific way of watching sports on television, with those of an American soccer fan?

There’s a natural maturation of what’s happened in our broadcasts. Over the last 12 years, we’ve all realized that maybe we shouldn’t spend our energy on trying to rein in the ‘casual fan’ on our MLS broadcasts. The telecasts are going to be designed not to shut out the average sports fan, but a little more to the point where we are going to go towards the soccer fan.

Bully for you (and us) Mikey Mike.

It's the same thing with producers, directors and play-by-play guys. We’d have people who weren’t doing hockey or volleyball that night, so they’d do soccer. Now we have people who are dedicated to soccer, and understand the intricacies of the game. You don’t have to have as many seminars and discuss what offside is.

In 1996, our director Doug Wren, who is one of the top directors in sports, had this vision of bringing more cameras down to field level so that when the ball went out of bounds, we could shoot the faces and the jerseys to build this brand, and try to turn these guys into stars.

We got a little bit of grief for that. There were people involved with the league who were fans of the international game that said, ‘That's not how it's done. And that low camera is blocking 15 seats.’ We were in 60,000-seat stadiums in most cases, and we didn't care that we were blocking 15 seats because we weren't filling them anyway. But if you watch the 1998 World Cup in France, there were more low cameras on the field than there ever were before. So we weren't going to be afraid to be aggressive, and in some cases, that was maybe copied.


The other example started in 1999, when the first soccer-specific stadium opened in Columbus. The Hunt Group gave us a blank piece of paper and asked us where we wanted to put cameras. We didn't want to be at 60-65 feet, which is FIFA's standard play-by-play camera coverage. We wanted to get the game down to 40-50 feet. We are starting to do that in every stadium we build now.

Again, the purists came after us, saying that’s not how it’s done in Europe. But now, Chelsea is putting the new main play-by-play camera position at Stamford Bridge at just over 20 feet. Allianz Arena in Germany just sent me a DVD comparing their camera positions at the 2006 World Cup, which was close to 70 feet, to what they're using for Bayern Munich, which is 35-40 feet. It just makes sense to make the game more intimate. The days of seeing 22 dots on the screen are done. You can’t do that if you’re trying to market a sport.

And finally:

It seems every year, there’s a little something new on the telecasts, like the yellow offside line. Is there anything new in store for 2008?

Cohen: In Fox’s pre-game shows, which we’re thrilled with, there will be an increase of locker room shots and pre-game interviews. The studio show they did was a tremendous asset to the league. It gave fans the ability to go inside the game. Building on that success is something Fox is able to do.

With ESPN, we’re happy with the selection of JP Dellacamera and John Harkes because they’re giving the game back to the fan. This year, they’re going to add super slo-mo cameras, which helps enhance the game coverage. When you see foot movement, ball movement, and great saves in super slo-mo, it’s probably the single biggest enhancement that we should be focused on throughout our broadcast. Over 12 years, you play with overhead cameras and animations, and ultimately it comes down to how you best cover the game. And we’re all in agreement that the more super slo-mo cameras you have, the better.

ESPN is also going to introduce a player tracking system by a company called Sportsvision to do a virtual 180-degree re-creation of the play. This was the ‘synthetic video’ that you saw at the US-Mexico game. It’s a good tool because it doesn’t cut away from the game action. But for analysis purposes at halftime or post-game, you’ll see the play in a cool way.

It goes back to the fact that we’re not trying to break away from the game, ever. We’re just trying to improve how the game is covered.

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