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Professional soccer returns to TV without fans, but with microphones in the turf

July 7, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC

ESPN gets back to the business of broadcasting live team sports in the U.S. Wednesday night with the return of Major League Soccer.

While the seats will be empty, fans at home will hear and see fancy new sounds and visuals, including drones capturing the action from above, super-slow-motion replays from cameras behind the goals and microphones buried in the turf.

The match between the league’s two Florida clubs, Orlando and Miami, will showcase new features that the Walt Disney Co.-owned network has been planning almost since the coronavirus shut down live events in March. It’ll be a proving ground for technologies the broadcaster could use when other sports return, including the National Basketball League, which resumes play later this month at the same ESPN Wide World of Sports facility in Orlando.

“You’re going to pretty much hear everything,” said Amy Rosenfeld, who is heading the production for ESPN. “There may be some trial and error here. I’m really curious to experience the turf mics: It could be a dud, it could be incredibly impactful.”

It’s also a risk. The cost of producing the games is more than double what the network would normally spend, Rosenfeld said. That includes a production staff of 160 people and as many as four times the number of microphones typically deployed. A larger crew is necessary because of the grueling schedule, with 54 games slated for one month in the Florida heat, and the possibility of more illnesses.

Virus threat

“This would be daunting even without the pandemic,” Rosenfeld said in an interview.

The virus continues to be a threat to players and staff, particularly in central Florida, where cases have spiked recently. Already 16 players have tested positive for Covid-19, and one team, Dallas, has withdrawn from the tournament, according to the league.

Team members will stay at Disney hotels nearby and be subject to rigorous testing and quarantine precautions for the duration of play, in an area that’s been dubbed “the bubble.”

The network ruled out putting mics on players and referees because it wanted to minimize contact between its crew and the team. The league, meanwhile, decided not to go with fake crowd noises, as other sports have done, hoping the array of microphones might bring a new audio perspective, according to Seth Bacon, the league’s senior vice president of media.

In one aspect of the new catch-up sports era, ESPN is showing games starting at 9 a.m. New York time on weekdays for fans able to multitask or not working. “I really like this idea of wake up, get your coffee and watch a great soccer match,” Rosenfeld said.

The first National Women’s Soccer League game of the season drew over 572,000 viewers on CBS on June 27, a record. Other leagues returning to play can expect a similar bump as sports-starved fans return to live matches, according to Patrick Crakes, a sports-media consultant.

Back to trend?

“Every sport will come out of the box with a strong number, then we get back to trend,” he said. “People are saying, ‘I want to check out the no-fan thing.’”

Bacon declined to comment on league plans for social-justice messages when the games resume. England’s Premier League players wore Black Lives Matter on their jerseys when they returned last month. The NBA is planning similar messages addressing civil rights, the league has said.

Because the games won’t have fans, MLS is skipping the national anthem — meaning players won’t have an opportunity to take a knee in protest.

Rosenfeld said she’s ready for whatever happens on the field.

“Our job is to document the event, and the actions by the players are part of the event,” she said.