‘Endline’ is a weekly column in which a member of Midfield Press staff surveys the NASL landscape for a topic of interest and fires a broadside of opinion. The content below reflects the opinion of the author alone and not that of Midfield Press or other individual staff.
One of the things you learn really quickly in college admissions is the power of optics. A few months ago I was talking to a parent who suggested that he knew a campus wasn’t right for his daughter when he saw their poorly maintained lawns. Obviously that meant the academic experience provided would be sub-par as well. Now I happen to know the campus in question quite well and it provides a world class education. But that didn’t matter to this parent who seemed to have forgotten everything about his visit to that school except for the lawns.
Going into 2015, NASL invested quite a bit in better “lawn” care and improved arguably the most visible component of their league’s offerings. They dropped the much-despised NASL Live streaming platform and chose instead show matches on the vastly more stable (and free) ESPN3. The league’s official YouTube channel has also started providing league-wide highlights on a timely basis, the lack of which was a constant complaint last year. Midway through 2015 the league upped the ante again by announcing a broadcast agreement with the One World Sports to show midweek games and a weekly highlights show. I also heard from several sources that the league spent the off season emphasizing to teams the important of broadcast infrastructure and better video offerings. For example, the Rowdies have truly embraced the message and their product on TV and their YouTube content is miles above what was available in 2014. But things are far from perfect.
Those tuning into arguably this past weekend’s biggest match, Ottawa Fury vs. FC Edmonton, would have found themselves able to the hear the internal conversations from the crew at various points during the broadcast including the beginning of the second half. If you tuned in to watch the Scorpions play the Strikers this past Saturday, you will have missed the movement leading up to league leading scorer Stefano Pinho’s second goal. As the ball moves toward the Scorpion’s box and out of the shot, the camera remains on midfield. Viewers never got to see how the ball reached PC who then made a quick pass to Pinho.
Another area that produces frequent issues is the use of broadcast graphics. While the bad old days of there being no clock on the screen seem to be gone, you still see teams posting low quality lineup graphics like the one San Antonio broadcast (pictured). All too often the recipient of a card or a goalscorer is not noted by an on screen graphic.
When dispassionately observing these issues in the context of the longer broadcasts, it’s clear they are few and far between. But unfortunately for any ancient Greeks that can claim to live life this way, Negativity Bias is a real thing for the rest of us and human beings are far more apt to remember the negatives than the positives. And few and far between as they may be, the NASL’s broadcast foibles are still too common and leave the league with a less polished image than ideal.
Commentary is perhaps the one broadcast feature in which the NASL has truly earned a passing grade. Our Division 2 commentators are almost always good at recognizing away players and analyzing the weaknesses in the home lineup. Away goals are also almost always shown respect. A few such as San Antonio’s Lincoln Rose and Kit McConnico or Minnesota’s Chris Lidholm and Alan Willey go one step further providing viewers heaps of background data, historical stats and color on recent team/player happenings. There are occasional complaints about bias – Midfield Press’ own Ian Foster hasn’t been happy with the Indy Eleven commentators – but I’m far more forgiving. When the men calling the games are locals, a bit of bias is to be expected; nobody in the NASL’s booth comes close to displaying truly unbearable levels of homer-ism.
Surprisingly, the weakest commentary team in the NASL is the one working for its new broadcast partner; the commentators on One World Sports are respectable when it comes to the Cosmos but their work on midweek non-Cosmos games makes me yearn for the hometown commentary teams. When the Cosmos aren’t playing, the OWS team have surprisingly little depth to provide beyond describing what is happening on the pitch. They just don’t seem to know the rest of the NASL well and it doesn’t seem like they have the research available to fake it. The result is shallow.
Another area One World Sports flubs is highlights although, to be fair, that’s an area where NASL teams are wildly inconsistent. Minnesota, Indy and Tampa Bay all provide high quality highlights on their YouTube channels. The videos feature all the important plays in the game, typically have commentary and a game clock. Watching their videos, it’s easy to get a sense of what went on in the match or why a particular player is being celebrated as the man of the match.
Unfortunately for many of the other teams, “highlights” has come to mean “goals.” A particularly egregious example is the video OWS provided for the Cosmos’ May 24th win against the Cosmos. Apparently a 3-0 game was worthy of only a 44 second clip in which only about 36 seconds was given over to gameplay. Want to see slow motion replays of the penalty-causing foul? Or perhaps an alternate angle on a goal? Sorry, but you’re out of luck. Our highlights producing overlords are too busy.
The truly amusing thing is that even when a team produces a high quality, in-depth highlights package, the NASL’s official channel chooses to post a more condensed version. That matters less when the home team is Minnesota where the video crew seems to be providing the NASL with a decent 2-3 minute package but it’s annoying to see the official league channel post minute long highlights when the away team’s broadcaster has a far more comprehensive video. And sometimes the official channel posts a terrible video with one goal and no on-screen graphics even when the home team has a clearly superior version available.
Now, I do not have with extensive broadcast experience but running a YouTube channel with videos I create has given me at least a tiny bit of appreciation for the video production process. In the scheme of things, producing a 3-4 minute highlight package of respectable quality isn’t hard. It’s time consuming (like all video editing) but all you need is the broadcast tape and an adequately competent video editor who has an interest in soccer. Barring that final point, some good notes about important plays from someone who is a soccer aficionado would suffice. And yet the majority of NASL teams just can’t seem to find it in their budget, manpower or perhaps both to produce serviceable highlights. Even OWS who produce a 30 minute NASL highlights program and presumably has several video editors, fails on highlights. On the other hand, the league NASL compares itself to, MLS, produces free highlights videos for each of its matches that are about 4 minutes long (consistently), include commentary and the gameclock. MLS also provides much longer “condensed” versions of matches on their subscription-based MLS Live platform.
This criticism isn’t intended as a knock on the hard working broadcast crews across the NASL who do their best given their mandate. And it’s also not a comment on the NASL’s actual at-the-match product, which those of us who go to games know is strong. Rather it’s meant as a wake up call to executives across the NASL that their expectations of the league’s video offerings still seem too low. Things have improved since last year but the effort being made is still inadequate. Maintaining interest in the league rather than just your team is rather hard when the choice we’re faced with is watching entire 90 minute matches or paltry highlights that don’t actually provide any understanding of the matches. It’s also hard to maintain the image of the NASL as a robust, professional league (second or first division) when some of the league’s broadcasts appear unpolished and include errors.
Realistically only a league-wide, all-encompassing broadcast deal of the sort MLS has can truly homogenize the NASL broadcast experience. The NASL decentralized model means that teams are allowed to individually decide what priority assigned to (and as a result the amount in) their video budgets. In a league with variations in total budget size, that’s only going to increase the inconsistency of the experience. And like the college the parent I was speaking to visited, some teams will shift money away from their “lawns” to service other areas. This author would argue that for this league, a little groundskeeping would be well worth the cost.