NEW YORK – Two months ago, at the intersection of Park Avenue and 106th Street in Manhattan, the studio space for MLS Season Pass didn’t exist.
But a wide group of people – from MLS and Apple, from NEP and IMG – got to work with a clear deadline in mind: Feb. 25, the start of the 2023 season.
Suffice it to say mission accomplished.
“I love this expression: no pressure, no diamonds,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday morning at a season launch event. “If you don't put yourself to task, then you're never going to be able to achieve the impossible.”
Garber was speaking from the space that’ll house "MLS 360," the new live whip-around show providing live look-ins from every match, as well as analysis and discussion. There are separate studios for "MLS Countdown" and "MLS Wrap-Up" – the pregame and postgame shows that’ll start and cap each matchnight – with cutting-edge technology, designs and capabilities throughout.
At the convergence of New York’s Upper East Side and Harlem neighborhoods, it’s where MLS broadcasts will soon come to life.
“It's been 27 years of waiting for this moment, to see this studio, to see MLS be put on the forefront,” said MLS Season Pass match analyst Taylor Twellman. “I think all of us need to be reminded of how monumental today is and what this season's going to be because I've never seen a studio like this.”
Framing everything is the unprecedented 10-year partnership that’s underway between MLS and Apple. Games are no longer broadcast on local or regional television, but are instead streamed globally in multiple languages on Apple TV without any blackouts and on any screen. Select matches can still be viewed nationally via linear partners – FOX Sports, TelevisaUnivision (Leagues Cup only), TSN and RDS are such destinations – but MLS Season Pass is the consistent one-stop-shop for regular season, Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and Leagues Cup action.
With a reimagined schedule centered mainly around 7:30 pm local start times on Saturdays and some Wednesdays, a transformative period in sports is here.
“Someone shared with me awesome insight, that an MLS executive recently said how baseball was born on the radio, football on TV and soccer is being born now in the age of digital streaming,” said MLS Season Pass host Jillian Sakovits.
That age includes more camera angles, 1080p video, Dolby 5.1 audio, and enhanced data and graphics in live match coverage. At the core is Apple, a company that’s been revolutionary across multiple industries and how society functions.
“We are playing in the global game and we're not yet the global league that we want to be. And what better way to do that than with a global digital partner that is ubiquitous around the world?” Garber posed.
“It's just starting and I can't tell you what it's like to have our clubs talk to a player from Argentina or from Brazil or from Croatia or from England and know that you'll be able to deliver a game directly to one of their fans with the click of a button. That is perhaps the most exciting part of this new partnership.”
With an enhanced content experience on MLS Season Pass – one ranging from studio and in-stadium coverage on matchdays, to longer-form features and club-produced weekly updates – it’s a new era for the league. At the forefront of everything is a fan-first experience where simplicity is a constant guidepost.
“It's unbelievable for us to be able to partner with the leading company in the world that thinks about the fan, the consumer first,” Garber said. “It's not thinking about how does my device work for them? It's how does somebody want to interact with my device?”
This new platform will also prove transformative for MLS’ various partners, giving them access to more soccer fans globally. Representatives from adidas, AT&T, Audi and IHG Hotels & Resorts were all in attendance Wednesday, speaking about the game’s overall direction.
“There's not many industries where growth from now could surpass what has grown in the past,” said Rupert Campbell, president of adidas North America. “We only see opportunity here and streaming will help us massively to connect with more fans, more communities around the world. The more access that people can get to the beautiful game, the more it will grow. To me, this is a huge opportunity.”
Ninety-two broadcasters have been hired and dozens of producers and directors are working behind the scenes, broadcasting matches from stadiums across the U.S. and Canada. Summed together, MLS Deputy Commissioner, and President and Managing Director of MLS Business Ventures Gary Stevenson said he’d put the group up against “anybody in the world” with the quality they’ll deliver.
Now, to use Garber’s phrase, an “incredible journey” with Apple formally begins. It’s a true launch point for MLS and what soccer in North America can become.
“We're just thrilled to go to work on Saturday and deliver this great content to the world,” said Stevenson.
In 2023, MLS expands to 29 clubs with the introduction of St. Louis CITY SC. But what about team No. 30 as this period of rapid growth continues to unfold?
Garber provided some updates Wednesday, highlighting San Diego and Las Vegas as the “most likely opportunities” – two cities that have come up in years past. Phoenix, Sacramento and Tampa Bay were also mentioned.
As for a timeline, Garber said “the end of the year” will likely bring an announcement. There’s also the opportunity to push beyond 30 clubs.
“I don't ever say never in Major League Soccer,” Garber said. “There are many other markets that are opportunities for us … Soccer is exploding professionally everywhere on the professional side, on the men's and women's side. So we'll see.”
On Tuesday, MLS also announced its format for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs and MLS Cup presented by Audi.
Following Decision Day on Oct. 21, a pair of single-elimination Wild Card matches will now be played ahead of an enhanced Round One, which includes a Best-of-3 series. The subsequent stages – Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals – continue with the old single-elimination format, ending with MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9. Higher seeds host throughout, and the first two segments will be decided by penalty kicks.
“We're really excited about it,” Garber said. “We have the support of our chief soccer officers, our coaches, our technical people, and our product strategy committee that just met last week and approved the new format.”
Garber said the decision was motivated by MLS wanting “more games,” while the league is open to future changes if needed.
“I am intrigued by innovation,” Garber said. “I'm not married to the past. I want to get it right. If this works, we'll have it forever. If it doesn't work then we'll continue to evolve it.”