MLS finalizing Apple TV talent, owners consider best-of-three playoff format: Sources

Major League Soccer is finalizing its list of play-by-play and color commentators who will serve as talent for its MLS Season Pass broadcasts on Apple TV, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

Those sources spoke under the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship with MLS executives. Former ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman, who announced last week that he is leaving the network, is among the broadcasters who have reached agreements with MLS.

Others who are expected to be on that list, or are in various stages of discussions, include play-by-play commentators Keith Costigan, Ed Cohen, Steve Cangialosi, Tyler Terence, Eric Krakauer and Kevin Egan. Color commentators include Brian Dunseth, Lloyd Sam, Kyndra de St. Aubin, Ross Smith, Tony Meola and Jamie Watson. Former MLS players Maurice Edu, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan have also been in advanced talks with MLS, the sources said.

UPDATE: In a press release on Tuesday, MLS confirmed the following talent has been signed: Max Bretos, Steve Cangialosi, Jake Zivin, Pablo Ramirez (Spanish-language), Frederic Lord (French-language) for play-by-play, match analysts: Kyndra de St. Aubin, Maurice Edu, Lori Lindsey, Danielle Slaton, Taylor Twellman, Marcelo Balboa (Spanish-language), Sebastien Le Toux (French-language), Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Diego Valeri (Spanish-language) and studio hosts: Liam McHugh, Jillian Sakovits, Tony Cherchi (Spanish-language).

MLS is expected to unveil at least some of the talent on Tuesday as part of a preseason media event in California. Other broadcasters not named above will be included in the full roster of commentators. Of the final group of commentators, some will be guaranteed a minimum number of games over the course of the season while others will have more flexible arrangements.

Some well-known names who have been told they won’t be a part of the main thrust of the initial coverage but could be featured in some capacity down the road include JP Dellacamera, Dave Johnson and Shep Messing.

Multiple sources said there is some concern with how much remains up in the air so close to the season, which kicks off in 47 days on Feb. 25. The league has opted to turn production of games over to sports media giant IMG, sources said, and multiple sources said IMG hired John McGuinness, who has worked on NHL and Olympics broadcasts, as one of its top producers for MLS.

The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal last June which will see the tech giant show every single MLS regular season and playoff match on its Apple TV streaming service starting this season. Most of those matches will be shown on the MLS Season Pass subscription service, though more than 40 percent of them will be available for free.

The league previously announced that the Season Pass app will cost $12.99 per month or $79 per season for those already subscribed to Apple TV+, and $14.99 a month or $99 per season for non-subscribers. MLS season ticket holders receive one free subscription to the service per account.

The new Season Pass app will also include a significant amount of club-created content on channels called, “Club Rooms.” According to an internal league document acquired by The Athletic this week, those club rooms require specific content before and during the season, including club profiles, player profiles and a fan/culture-specific feature called, “The Ritual.” Those channels will also have videos on club “legends,” team traditions and big games in the team’s history, as well as weekly and monthly content during the season, including first-team reports, player interviews, MLS Next Pro and academy reports and community reports.

MLS will also simulcast games on linear TV: 34 regular-season and eight postseason games will air on Fox networks, 21 Leagues Cup games will be shown on Univision/UniMás/TUDN in the US and a significant number of matches will be shown on TSN and RDS in Canada.

League considering best-of-three series for playoffs

MLS is considering changing its playoff format to include a best-of-three series in the first round, multiple sources have told The Athletic.

If adopted, it is probable that only the first round would be contested as a best-of-three competition. The sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the proposed changes, said that the rest of the playoff tournament would likely be single-elimination. The proposed format would be divided by conference and would include 16 teams, eight each from the East and the West.

The sources did not know the exact details of how the potential best-of-three series would be contested, but several noted that MLS used the format in the opening two rounds of the playoffs during its early years. In those series, the first team to get to five points advanced, with extra time added to the third game in the event that the teams finished regulation tied on three or four points.

The sources said that the best-of-three proposal now seems more likely to be adopted than the previously discussed proposal that would have changed the playoff format to include group and knockout stages. That proposal was revealed by The Athletic in October.

As reported by The Athletic in October, MLS is looking to increase the total number of playoff matches from the 13 contested in 2022 to around 30. The sources said that the league is looking to do so in part so it can increase its overall inventory of playoff matches in the first year of its new media rights agreement.

Contesting eight best-of-three first round series before moving to a single-elimination format in the conference semifinals would give MLS between 23 and 31 total playoff matches.

The sources said that the format that would have included group and knockout stages is now more of a long shot than the best-of-three proposal because the league doesn’t want to end up in a situation in which teams would play a group stage match that would have no bearing on which teams advanced to the knockout round.

The sources also cautioned that none of the proposed new playoff formats have been approved. League owners need to sign off on the changes prior to the season opener on Feb. 25 in order for them to take effect in 2023.

Sources optimistic that MLS will allow for intra-league transfers

Momentum is building within MLS for the establishment of an intra-league transfer market, with some sources telling The Athletic that such a mechanism could be introduced as soon as this summer.

Currently, MLS teams are not allowed to buy/sell players for cash to/from other MLS teams. They can trade them for allocation money, but that isn’t real-world currency, just an MLS budgetary device. The policy made sense during the league’s turbulent beginnings, when some owners controlled multiple teams, but MLS has grown to the point where an internal market could easily be beneficial. There was some concern in creating new areas where teams would have to pay training compensation to fellow MLS clubs due to internal sales. Those payments are avoided with trades. There were also questions about how it would be executed legally because all players are contracted to MLS, not the specific clubs, and so technically it is not a sale between clubs. The sources were not clear how those questions would be answered should an intra-league transfer market be introduced.

Allowing teams to buy and sell players internally would create an additional revenue stream for selling clubs and add another mechanism to help keep talented players in the league.

The sources were not sure how exactly an intra-league transfer market would work if one is adopted. One source expected that only players already making more than the maximum budget charge ($651,250 in 2023) or those whose new teams plan to immediately give them a contract that would take their salary above the maximum budget charge would be eligible for intra-league transfers. That same source expected that intra-league transfer fees would count towards a team’s budget the same way they do in the current system; the buying team would amortize the fee and add it to the player’s salary to generate his budget charge, while the selling team would either be able to pocket the cash or convert at least a portion of it into general allocation money.

The introduction of an intra-league transfer market was a wildly popular idea The Athletic‘s anonymous 2022 survey of MLS executiveswith 21 out of 21 executives surveyed saying they wanted the league to allow for them.

“Most successful leagues, the most active transfer market is internal,” said one executive. “By definition, when I’m looking to sell a player, I’m cutting off a potential channel to sell. It makes no sense. And it’s not just that the bigger clubs are going to buy from the smaller clubs. If a big club wants to go and get a DP better than the one they currently have, another club might take that (big club’s current) DP. They might say, ‘I know him, he’s in the league, and I’d rather pay to get him than go to South America and try out on something less certain.’ I just see multiple benefits. And why wouldn’t we?”

“Yes absolutely. One hundred percent (we should have one),” added another. “I don’t get it. Why, if there is a very good player, a very good fit in the league, does he have to leave the league if a club cannot offer a better contract or wants to sell? Why can’t another team buy him as a DP? Or if a team like Salt Lake has all three DPs occupied and they can’t make a player like (Damir) Kreilach a DP and they have to sell the player but we can’t buy him. Why? Why let players walk instead of creating a new market?”

(Photo: Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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