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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

Without the independent voices, MLS is less appealing

When the sports league controls its own TV broadcasts and web content, do not be surprised when there is a clear lack of balance, credibility, or transparency.

What we have is a sports equivalent of state media, with controversies brushed under the rug, messaging structured, and intriguing stories overlooked.

And, while I get it, it isn’t healthy.

More than that, it makes MLS appear controlling, thin-skinned and sensitive.

Major League Soccer has the monopoly on Major League Soccer. They control the broadcasts, their comprehensive website has wall-to-wall coverage of all the teams, and the clubs dominate the landscape in their markets.

It was often amusing to note the league’s website referencing ‘league sources’ when speculating on player trades. I’d have to check but I’m pretty confident that they had a 100 per cent success rate on those stories!

Two major controversies converged on the league in the days leading up to the opening game. There is the ugly impasse between MLS referees and PSRA (Professional Soccer Referees Association), and the league’s resistance to being involved in the long-standing Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The pre-match interview, prior to Inter Miami vs. Real Salt Lake, with MLS commissioner Don Garber made no mention of the Open Cup debacle, while the league chief’s barbed response when asked about the referees’ strike painted the match officials as the villains. Would the referees’ representative be allowed to offer their side on the league’s TV platform? You get my point. Balance, and therefore credibility, is lacking.

At this stage, either the league doesn't realize how poor these staged scenarios look or they feel they're big enough now - thanks to the Apple investment - to simply not care.

Another issue is that local media is hit and miss. Some are more independent than others. Some are stronger than others. Some are merely fans dressed as media. Some are students building a portfolio. Some report without fear or favor. And some do not. It's a mixed bag.

There are influencers around the league who could bring about balance to the conversation, though most are on the MLS payroll and wary that any dissenting voices will not be tolerated.

Working as a journalist within a club was an eye-opening experience. It quickly became apparent that any thoughts I had of having the kind of free rein I enjoyed as an experienced and respected BBC broadcaster would need to be checked at the stadium gates.

There were narratives outlined at the start of a season, whether it was promoting homegrowns, highlighting youth development, or buying in to the style of play. Clubs influencing storylines took some getting used to, and it wasn’t unheard of to have them shoe-horned into broadcasts. Sometimes they didn’t even fit that week’s narrative, but it was on that season’s agenda and had to be included.

Now, I understand the position I was in, and the role of the league and the clubs, and who was paying my wages, but the league’s dominance in this space seems to be making it more and more difficult for independent media to cover to any credible degree. Certainly, in the market I operated in, the mainstream media kept the club at arms length – they had bigger fish to fry, and the club didn’t always make it easy to cover them, leaving it to the passionate part-timers who balanced it with a full-time job.

There was, and still remains, a distinct lack of quality storytelling. What we have is professional soccer, in some great new stadiums, and with exciting players, young and old. But it is all packaged in a restricted, sanitized, sometimes colorless, characterless and always controlled environment.

Social media has been awash this week with a growing chorus of reporters claiming veiled threats of credentials being removed for what clubs perceive as negative coverage, or reduced access, or no credentials given at all. What has become a consideration in the last decade is the explosion of club media, with revenue-generating content. More and more the clubs, like the league, are controlling more and more of the messaging, thereby squeezing out the independent voices.

In the last season or so of my time, I was around enthusiastic but incredibly raw and inexperienced club staff who were expected to interview the players and coach in the days leading up to a match. They would have pre-prepared questions on their phone, some of which you could tell were to fit that week’s topic or agenda. They weren't to blame. For many, they were trying to make their way, didn't know any better and were only taking orders from above, but it could make for very bland interviews.

The hope when Apple TV became the league’s broadcast partner at the start of the 2023 season was that the coverage would be fresh, comprehensive and impartial. That certainly seemed to be the impression. The reality is something quite different.

Rather than the broadcast storylines being determined at a local level, with in-depth pre and postgame coverage and expert insight, you now have broadcasts lacking in detail, determined by folks with limited historical knowledge of the subject matter and over reliant on in-house media folks for inspiration. The prematch coverage is short on context but also minus the warts ‘n’ all that often accompanies domestic leagues not controlled by the domestic leagues, a consequence of the monopoly.

MLS has made no secret about wanting to be among the biggest soccer leagues in the world. Growth will happen a little more slowly until they understand the grip of the marketing men, spin doctors and accountants are holding them back. The Premier League has ventured down this path, losing an element of its soul, but the U.K. has a far more robust soccer media, and the sport as a whole is built on far more solid foundations due to a much longer, deeper and richer history.

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