Major League Soccer’s “media and marketing tour” is one of the hallmarks of any MLS preseason, a chance for the league to trot out its marquee players and coaches and make them available to the media ahead of preseason. For hours, dozens of players decked out in full kits march around a convention center and are interviewed, videotaped and photographed ad nauseam. It feels a little bit like an assembly line.
This year’s event in San Jose, California was a little different. At times, suits outnumbered kits, as much of the focus of Tuesday’s event was on MLS’ landmark media rights partnership with Apple, the tech giant based in nearby Cupertino.
For months, questions have surrounded the agreement. Some observers have voiced concern about whether the league, which is fully responsible for producing all of the content, is well equipped to shoulder that burden. And, until recently, little was known about the broadcast talent the league planned to use to execute its vision.
MLS did their best to dissuade those concerns on Tuesday, first releasing a list of talent they’ve contracted to help broadcast their upcoming matches and later marching a dozen or so of them out on stage. MLS Commissioner Don Garber was present, as well, and joined by Apple’s senior vice president of services, Eddy Cue, who, among his other responsibilities, oversees the company’s video offerings.
Of the personalities revealed on Tuesday, Taylor Twellman was clearly the biggest present. Over the years, the former player and ESPN commentator has become a familiar face to MLS fans, and landing him seems like a minor coup for the league, who were badly in need of a high-profile signing to help introduce their coverage. For Twellman, the partnership with Apple signifies a potential sea change in terms of broadcast quality and perception.
“(With this deal) it’s about not having to fight for certain things that a league has to fight for that it shouldn’t have to at this point … MLS has always had to apologize for who they are, what they’re doing, they’ve always had to try and get airtime. Apple literally walked into the door and said, ‘How can we make the consumer experience better?’”
Twellman pointed to the standardization of MLS’ schedule as an immediate impact. The league has long had issues figuring that side of things out. They seem to have it sorted out for the time being after moving matches into a fairly narrow set of windows on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays as part of their agreement with Apple.
The quality of MLS’ broadcasts has also varied wildly over the years; some of the league’s local broadcasts, which were previously put on largely by regional sports networks, felt barebones. Twellman, and others, suggested that won’t be the case in the near future.
“There have been open notebooks,” said Twellman, “Open ears. (Apple) is listening. Obviously time is of the essence. I don’t think what you see on opening day is going to be what you see in six months, or a year or two years down the road. But it’s remarkable having done this for over 13 years — the right questions are being asked, and that’s why my enthusiasm for what this league and what this sport can do are through the roof right now … For 27 years (the production quality) hasn’t been there. It’s where Apple got my attention, because the MLS fan deserves to be treated with respect — the way this league has grown in the last five years, the broadcast and stuff has to be there, too.”
Twellman’s decision to leave ESPN was a bit complicated, he said after the event. The network has deployed him in a number of roles over the years, though he has primarily covered American soccer. Going forward, that likely wouldn’t have been the case — ESPN no longer owns any U.S. national team or U.S.-based club rights. Staying, then, would’ve meant focusing almost entirely on other sports or other soccer leagues.
“When it came down to it I could not see myself not being in a stadium for MLS Cup,” said Twellman, “Or not calling MLS Cup, the Leagues Cup final, all of that. I couldn’t see myself leaving the sport, even though I was enticed by what it meant. I just don’t know if I could’ve been happy.”
Garber and Cue both glowed about each other’s product throughout the presentation, about what you’d expect at one of these events. There was no talk of production difficulties; candidly, industry sources have for months continued to voice concerns about how MLS will bring their product to fruition in such a compressed timeline and how that end product will stack up to previous offerings. Garber pushed back on those assertions.
“We are on target,” Garber told The Athletic after the presentation. “We are feeling really good about all aspects of the production. It’s an unprecedented effort and I couldn’t be more excited about where we are. The talent lineup, it warms your heart to see how passionate and excited they are and what they’ll represent for our league and for Apple going forward. We have a lot of work to do going forward but we’ll be ready at kickoff.”
The assemblage of talent on display Tuesday was diverse — both in gender and race — and strikingly young, with a large swath of recently retired players on stage. The league appears to have chosen to go young with its broadcast talent, a shift that’s left many of the league’s traditional voices — broadcasters like JP Dellacamera, Joe Tutino and Shep Messing — on the outside looking in.
“Our league (is) the league for a new America,” said Garber. “It’s young, it’s diverse, it’s global, it represents all aspects of the community. You think about the Apple consumer, I was gonna poke Eddy, (point at the broadcast talent on stage) and say, ‘That’s your customer up there — the folks that are standing up there that are going to do our games are the people that are buying products.’ I’ve been involved somewhat as you’d imagine, as has Eddy, in the bringing together of the talent pool. This is a small representation of the 80 that will be there, and it’s the future. I’m proud of what it represents. This is not yesterday’s news, it’s tomorrow’s news, in terms of what sports broadcasting will look like.”
This is not Apple’s first go at partnering with a major sports league. They broadcast Major League Baseball matches for the first time in 2022 and were notably involved in recent negotiations for the NFL’s “Sunday Ticket” franchise, which they eventually lost to Google. Before that development, many suggested that the tech company’s MLS broadcasts might serve as a test bed of sorts, a venue to try out new technologies and broadcast approaches with an eye toward acquiring a larger sports property down the road. With that possibility gone, for now, Apple seems like it’s banking on Major League Soccer to continue its growth and thrust itself even further into the mainstream.
“We think that MLS is going to be a huge league down the road,” said Cue. “We’ve loved working with everyone. The league itself, the teams, the players and as you saw today the talent, they have a key word that I love that we have at Apple and that’s passion. They love what they’re doing. We think together we’re going to make this an incredible league, and we are excited.”
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