ESPN, Fox and Univision are bringing a new feature to their coverage of Major League Soccer this year. Head coaches will wear microphones during select broadcasts to bring up-close sound to fans watching at home.
The feature will debut in all three national TV games when MLS' 21st season kicks off Sunday: Portland-Columbus at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN and ESPN Deportes), Seattle-Kansas City at 7 p.m. (Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes), and Los Angeles-D.C. at 10 p.m. (UniMás and Univision Deportes).
What will the end product look and sound like? You'll likely be able to hear the coaches giving orders to their players, as well as enhanced sound from the benches and technical areas. And if everything works out just so, you might get some of the back-and-forth between a coach and the fourth official on the sideline.
The TV networks have wanted to implement this feature for a while, but there have been varying degrees over time of resistance from people who would be involved. One factor in reaching an agerement is that the sound won't be taken to air live, in order to avoid inadvertent expletives landing on broadcasts. The sound will be delivered in replays, much as the NBA and NFL do.
Another part of the deal is that MLS will have a representative in networks' production trucks, where possible, to oversee what is aired and what is not. I'm sure this will raise some eyebrows, but it's worth noting that the NBA has almost the exact same procedure in place for vetting clips of its mic'ed up coaches.
Chris Alexopoulos, ESPN's top soccer producer, has worked both soccer and NBA broadcasts for the network. So he knows what's involved, and he's excited to help bring this feature to MLS.
"It was a lot of people looking at what other leagues are doing, and saying that this league has a unique opportunity to attempt to do more than any other league in terms of access," he told me. "Out of necessity, and because of the personalities of the players and the coaches. All players, coaches, broadcast partners and MLS [headquarters] - I think everyone understands that we have to do as much as we possibly can to get special content out to promote the league, because we're all invested in it equally."
ESPN's delivery will include adding cameras to the production that will be trained solely on each coach for the entire broadcast. That will allow the network to catch anything that happens on the sideline quickly.
Fox's delivery will come from a cameraperson situated between the benches. Lead producer Shaw Brown - who, like Alexopoulos, has produced MLS games for many years - will have a feed at his desk in the production truck with audio from both coaches.
"My hope is to have something at halftime to maybe to go along with the highlight package, or have some kind of a roll-in if it fits during the game," Brown told me. "The ball goes out and if we've got a good 10 seconds of Sigi [Schmid, the Seattle Sounders coach] talking about something that's cool, roll it in."
Brown added that before the game, Fox cameras will be in Kansas City's locker room to "be a fly on the wall for a little bit."
(I don't have all the details of how Univision will deliver its sideline footage, but what the viewer at home sees likely won't be too different from what ESPN and Fox produce. I have, however, been told that TSN and RDS in Canada will not be micing up coaches for its broadcasts.)
When it comes to capturing interactions between coaches and the officiating crew, Brown knows he already has a good working relationship with MLS referees because he regularly meets with them as he prepares for a weekend's broadcast.
"We go through everything I'm doing," Brown said, to make sure that his crew is explaining things correctly to viewers at home. "I always ask at the end [of the meeting], if I have a question, can [a member of the crew] ask the fourth official. And the fourth official says, 'As long as I'm not giving my opinion on what the referee is doing, sure.'"
That rapport paid off at last year's All-Star Game, when Fox was able to convince the referee and fourth official to wear microphones.
Brown pointed out that coaches were mic'ed up occasionally for games he helped produce in the league's early years. But this is the first time that there has been a move to make it a standard thing across the league.
"This is a credit to the league - they are pushing," he said. "These teams and refs are partners to us and they help us in immeasurable ways."
Above all, Brown noted, the game comes first. If there are ways to add features to a broadcast, he wants to, but nothing that overtakes the action on the field.
"You can't touch the game - that's the most important thing that we're going to do regardless," Brown said. "These are things that enhance the game, but for me they will never get in the way of the game. I won't let them."
You'll probably find varying levels of acceptance of being mic'ed up among MLS coaches. I solicited opinions from the Union's Jim Curtin and the New York Red Bulls' Jesse Marsch, and found both to be in favor of the idea.
Curtin offered an in-depth take during his weekly conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon:
Anything that grows the game, I'm on board for. Is it a little wild when you first hear they're going to have a microphone on you inside the locker room before the game? Yeah, that does sound crazy. There's going to be microphones at the fourth official's table. So it's different. But I think as coaches, you need to be innovative and open to change.
You look across the leagues now - the NBA, the NFL - you see Peyton Manning doing an interview 10 seconds before the Super Bowl kicks off. It's something that's coming. If they can do it in those leagues that have the billion-dollar TV contracts, I think we need to at least open our minds and be accepting of, maybe, new ideas in what were previously deemed sacred places. There are still special parts of the locker room that you do kind of question outside access too, but at the same time, there has to be a bit of a give-take.
I will say this: any coach that's going to be mic'ed up, there's no way to say exactly what you would if you weren't mic'ed up. That's a fact. Even when you watch these NBA huddles [in timeouts] and the different things that are said, you can almost tell right away that the coach is speaking like he has a microphone on, and is watching what he says.
It's a good thing. I think it's good for the game, it's an innovative thing, and again, we're trying to market and sell our league as one of the top leagues. That moves it in that direction.
I think any access for fans that are new to a game - anything that's said to a fourth official, that's said to a player that's going into a game, that's said in a locker room environment - first and foremost it's cool for them to see it, because it's something that they have maybe never had before. And then the nuance and the messaging that they hear, things that maybe make sense, the directions, can help them learn. Which is positive, and again, we're at a time when we're trying to grow our game.
It does need to be said, though, that the fourth official's table - man, people are really going to be watching what they say there, because I'm sure they're going to be able to review things. There's a lot of maybe-bad language that gets used that I don't think would be appropriate for live TV. So somebody's going to have to have the hot button ready in that regard.
Marsch isn't afraid to let loose on the sidelines, as fans saw last year when he helped marshal the Red Bulls to the Supporters' Shield. He does not intend to scale any of that back just because there's a microphone on his lapel.
"Maybe you know in the beginning, but then the game gets going and then you're not too worried about it," the Princeton product said.
Marsch concedes that some coaches might not want to have their tactics given away, but he also believes that there isn't much for any of them to hide.
"There was some talk among the coaches' group that it may expose some of the tactics or strategy in what you're doing, but I don't think there are too many secrets," he said. "There are some personalities that are coaches in this league, and there are some interesting things being done with different teams, and the more insight that I think the fans can get into the complexities of what's happening on the field, I think the more interesting it gets and the more compelling it gets."