Soccer

ESPN Broadcast of MLS Is Back Tournament Was Very 2020

The MLS is Back Tournament restarted the 2020 MLS season four months to the day after it halted at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, which is being held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and broadcast on the network of the same name, unfortunately, didn’t deliver the high-quality professional sports broadcast fans expect from the worldwide leader in sports.

MLS Is Back Tournament is hard to watch due to poor camera angles

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First things first — it was great to watch live soccer action in the U.S. Unfortunately, it was sometimes challenging to watch the action at all because unbelievably, ESPN didn’t have enough cameras to cover the entire field of play in the opening MLS is Back tournament game.

In particular, any time the ball approached midfield on the near sideline, the overhead camera angle awkwardly peered down on the action, until the ball and players would disappear off the screen. At that point, the camera angles switched, and the audience viewed an up-close, ground-level shot. 

That particular camera angle would last for just a few seconds until the ball moved away from the near sideline, and then it was switched back to the wider overhead shot. It was amateurish and discombobulating, to say the least. 

MLS is back and eerily quiet

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In recent weeks with the return of soccer to leagues around the world, including the Premier League which most recently restarted, television coverage has featured crowd noise in the empty stadiums. While it’s initially disconcerting to see no fans in the stands paired with the sound of a raucous crowd, once the action on the pitch begins, the audio-visual confusion fades away. 

During the MLS is Back telecast, ESPN announcer Jon Champion mentioned while you didn’t hear the roar of the fans, it was nice to “hear the meat of the communication on the pitch.” Not sure what Champion was referring to, but it wasn’t very meaty.

During one of the potential “meaty” interactions between an official and Orlando’s Dom Dwyer, where it was clear the forward used a few blue words, you couldn’t understand any of the on-field communication because Champion was talking. Other leagues and networks have seamlessly incorporated crowd noise into their broadcasts. ESPN and the MLS should look to do the same going forward.

Opening game delivers poignant message

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Saving the best for last, which was actually first. The opening protest was beyond moving. The MLS players got that spot on when almost 200 players took the field dressed in all black T-shirts with various slogans, black gloves, and black face-masks emblazoned with Black Lives Matter.

The players surrounded the perimeter of the pitch and raised their right arms one at a time, similar to Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medals podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The players held the pose long enough where some players could be seen stretching their fatigued arms at the ceremony’s conclusion. 

The entire ceremony was organized by the recently formed Black Players for Change, a new collection of MLS players created to combat racial inequalities and system racism both on and off the field. The two Florida teams shared another moment of silence with the referees and line judges taking a knee before the opening kick similar to what’s happened in other leagues around the world. 

The poignant moment highlighted the nation’s two most salient issues of the last four months — systemic racism and a pandemic — at the opening of soccer’s return. It was a moment beautifully choreographed and flawlessly executed. It also turned out to be the highlight of the entire evening. 

For MLS, ESPN, and the NBA, which starts across the street in a few weeks, that should be concerning. Fans can only hope, behind the scenes, the different parties are collectively working together to address these shortcomings for future broadcasts in hopes of providing a better viewer experience.