ESPN will produce all live match telecasts for MLS’ return-to-play tournament from its Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in an effort to limit the number of personnel on site amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to two sources familiar with broadcast plans for the event. The Disney-owned sports programmer will provide MLS broadcast partners Fox Sports and Univision with clean feeds of the games those networks are assigned to televise.
Under normal circumstances, each network would send its own personnel to a stadium to produce a match that it is broadcasting. With all 26 MLS clubs scheduled to play in the same location, however, MLS will attempt to curtail the number of people that come into contact with players and team personnel to reduce the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak.
For matches aired by Fox Sports or Univision’s TUDN sports division, those networks would provide their own commentary and branded graphics remotely from their respective outposts, the sources said. Each network’s telecasts would feature its own on-air talent.
MLS and ESPN, whose name adorns the athletic facility owned by its parent company, declined to comment on specific plans for broadcasting the tournament, which will be played without fans in attendance. Univision and Fox did not immediately reply to requests for comment. It’s unclear how many matches will be played as part of the event and how they will be split up among the league’s broadcast partners.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber told reporters on Wednesday that details of the league’s resumption of play in the Orlando, Fla., area are still being finalized. The league cleared a major hurdle on Wednesday when the MLS Players Association approved economic terms for a resumption of play in 2020 and ratified a revised five-year collective bargaining agreement. ESPN previously reported that team owners planned to lock out the players if they did not agree to a deal by today.
MLS and U.S. Soccer signed eight-year national U.S. television rights agreements with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision in 2014 that were reportedly worth a combined $90 million per year through the end of the 2022-2023 season. It is unclear how, if at all, the change to the format of the 2020 season due to the pandemic will impact economic terms for the 2020 season.
With MLS reportedly eyeing mid-July for the start of its tournament, it is on track to be the first major men’s team sport to resume play in North America amid the pandemic. Like MLS, the NBA is said to be close to finalizing plans to resume play at Walt Disney World. It’s unclear if ESPN and fellow NBA media partner Turner Sports would have a similar arrangement as the MLS rights partners.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who on May 26 announced plans for the league to resume with a 24-team tournament split between two hub cities at an unspecified time, said the NHL would likely deliver an “international feed” to its broadcast partners to limit on-site personnel, but did not specify whether American media partner NBC or Canadian media partner Rogers Communications would be involved in producing the games.