Do Apple’s MLS broadcasts merely exist to promote the league’s agenda?

The fact is that referees do their job well if you don’t notice them. It also appears to be MLS’s official policy.

Notable storylines as the 2024 campaign unfolds include Lionel Messi’s first full season in Miami, the controversial withdrawal of most MLS clubs from the US Open Cup and the use of replacement referees due to a labor dispute.

For the first of these, head to the competition’s official channels. But fans watching the MLS on Apple TV, where every match is broadcast, would learn little about the other two newsworthy stories. That’s exactly how the league wants it.

This is how the referee was introduced to viewers by commentator Jake Zivin, shortly before the kick-off of Inter Miami’s 5-0 win over Orlando City on March 2: “The man in charge today, Jaime Herrera, was the last to whistle for Houston and Sporting Kansas City. week, a 47-year-old experienced referee, originally from Mexico.”

It might have been interesting for viewers if Zivin had added that Herrera was a last-minute replacement for the replacement. The original choice was scrapped a few hours before kick-off photos appeared on social media on which he wore an Inter Miami shirt.

It’s also not hard to imagine that viewers might appreciate some context around controversial calls. Especially considering the spotlight on Messi’s every move, it seems relevant that he is arguably the greatest player of all time deserving mistakes awarded (or not) by officials plucked from the minor leagues, the college game and the ranks of the retired.

“I know the players, the coaches and the coaching staff around the league are very nervous about it. I think it’s going to be one of those storylines that we talk about in the first month of the season, depending on how long the lockout lasts. going,” Taylor Twellman, Apple TV’s top MLS analyst, told the Terrible announcement podcast from last month.

Or not. The Athletic has received a memo sent by MLS to TV and radio broadcasters last weekend, instructing them to minimize references to the referees and the lockout: “Fans tune in to watch and listen to the game. They are not focused on the officials,” it claimed. “That is why we do not think it is necessary to comment on this during the match. It’s best to mention the situation in the pregame and move on.

The Athletic added that the memo stated that the replacements should be described as “referees, no other description necessary” apart from cursory biographical details, and that agreeing or disagreeing with a questionable decision is fine, provided there is no suggestion is that the substitutions ‘were the reason’. for the controversial call”. An MLS spokesperson did not respond to a Guardian request for comment.

“It’s a little unusual for a league to actually take the step of saying something like that,” said Ed Desser, a sports media player. consultant and former NBA executive with extensive experience negotiating rights deals, although sometimes, he adds, the expectation can be implied to follow a certain editorial line.

Downplaying the roles of officials and not dwelling on their mistakes suits the league’s goals. As the lockout continues, it strengthens MLS’s bargaining power to give the impression that the replacement officials are doing a good job and that even without the top-choice teams, it’s business as usual. Anything else would influence the regular referees.

The practical effect of such invitations to self-censorship is that the only way the public can watch live broadcasts of MLS matches – aside from 34 matches on Fox channels – is through a lens shaped by the league that has more in common with marketing than with journalism. . It’s the broadcast as an extension of the matchday experience in the stadium: standardized and carefully curated, accentuating the positive, adhering strictly and respectfully to the branding, an ethos as rose-tinged as an Inter Miami kit.

Twellman became America’s preeminent soccer analyst thanks to his astute and blunt statements on ESPN, his reputation as an unvarnished teller of hard truths forged by a volcanic 2017 lash out of the US men’s team. As the leading voice in Apple TV coverage, he has cut a more diplomatic figure.

For the season opener he was interviewed the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, on Apple TV. “Last year was the best year in MLS history,” Twellman told Garber, citing Apple TV as one of the reasons. “How can you top that?” He did ask Garber about the lockout, which allowed the commissioner to rail against the union members unchallenged.

The refereeing dispute in MLS has received little attention on broadcasts. Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

There is nothing new in the tension between the desire to earn viewers’ trust by delivering candid and accurate reporting and the financial reality of media companies paying large billions of dollars for rights. So a huge amount of money goes into the ability to get eyeballs on screens even during the most boring goalless draw.

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Partisanship, whether overt, through careful word choice or omission of certain facts, has always been ingrained in regional broadcasts, where teams often select the commentators and run their own networks. Last year, the Baltimore Orioles reportedly insisted that broadcasters wear team uniforms during the broadcast and suspended an announcer for pointing out that the MLB team had a terrible record against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“A licensee of any league or conference has a selfish motivation to support that property because he or she has a financial interest in its success, so start with that basic proposition,” says Desser.

“Then you go further and you realize that announcers are faced with the prospect of the viewer seeing with their own eyes what is happening. So you can’t really stray too far from the reality of what’s happening on the field… What the dynamics are driving towards is a relatively accurate representation of what’s going on, but without the kind of pile-up that you can often see in, for example : print journalism.” He adds: “There is a line between the officially licensed broadcast presenting the event and just raw editorial bombast.”

What’s new is that we are in the streaming age. Traditional networks target a general audience, presenting a range of sports in different formats and are a required part of many cable TV bundles. They also employ journalists in newsgathering departments, with ESPN in particular building a business model based on being a trusted news source and live-action provider.

Apple sells one product – MLS – with exclusive broadcasts that, replacing local broadcasts, primarily appeal to dedicated fans of specific clubs (or a specific player, in Messi’s case). The success of a deal that will net the league $2.5 billion over 10 years depends on how many subscribers the Season Pass attracts and retains. Subscriptions are easy to cancel, and highlighting the arbitration dispute alerts customers to the fact that they are paying up to $99 per season or $14.99 per month for a slightly substandard product. If this doesn’t happen, given the near-monopoly, it’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker for fans.

There is also no tradition of editorial objectivity or duty to ensure balance in a company’s corporate culture famously secretive technology company – or, for that matter, a sports league that exists to further the interests of its select group of owners. Apple TV representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the memo and to interview Twellman.

By adding clubs and fans, improving on the pitch, enjoying the arrival of Messi, allowing its franchises and broadcast rights to soar in value, MLS could have shown the confidence to let its storytellers speak freely. Instead – perhaps precisely because it is now a multi-billion dollar company employing the world’s most famous footballer, and not despite those benefits – it seems keen to control the narrative. And it’s in a strong position to do that, given the unique nature of its streaming deal and the limited attention it gets from national media and black local newspapers.

Jeremy Filosa, a French-language commentator for Vancouver Whitecaps games on Apple TV last season, claimed to underline the sensitivity and served as a cautionary tale for all broadcasters harboring sharp opinions that could threaten the anodyne-by-design tenor. He claimed he was fired because of what he said was “Sometimes harsh opinions” on social media about CF Montreal.

“Any play-by-play announcer, analyst or on-field reporter who cannot pursue a story is unable to do her or his job,” said Malcolm Moran, a former New York Times sportswriter and managing director of Sports Capital Journalism Program. at IU Indianapolis. In the American sports world, he believes, broadcasters have come under increased scrutiny as arrangements for rights holders have become increasingly lucrative and independent journalists realize that the stakes increase as the price tag rises.

He adds: “The danger that the league faces because of the credibility issue is that you have independent media organizations that are going to cover that story. And if they report