By Dave Lifton
WASHINGTON DC (February 13, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- As the Executive Producer for Major League Soccer and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, Michael Cohen is responsible for managing the relationships with the league’s broadcast partners at both the network and regional levels. Having worked with MLS since its inception, Cohen has seen American soccer telecasts evolve into polished productions featuring the kind of technical innovations being adopted around the world.
In a career spanning nearly 25 years, Cohen has worked some of the most prestigious events in American sports, including the Kentucky Derby, US Open tennis, Super Bowl, and the World Series. For his work with NBC and CBS at the Olympic Games, he won three of his five Emmy awards.
With MLS preparing for its imminent thirteenth season, we spoke with Cohen about working with four networks, the challenges in selling the game to the American public, and how the national TV schedule is created.
USSoccerPlayers: With weekly games on four networks, are there codified directions or guidelines from the league on how to broadcast a game?
Cohen: No. We have input on announcers, and how productions are done. Because we had been the company that produced it for so long, they all value our input. Nobody comes in and says, ‘Sorry, thanks a lot. Take a seat. This is how it’s going to be done now.’ They don't do that. They respect the fact that the people in our division understand how to produce soccer on television, and have done so at high levels.
USSoccerPlayers: There just was a change in the ESPN announcing team. Do decisions like that have to be made in concert with you, or can you tell them what to do? Are there situations where you can veto them?
Cohen: In any true partnership, things are discussed, and we have very definite input. But I don't think anybody mandates anything. And ultimately, any network you do business with does have final say over the announcer selections.
USSoccerPlayers: You were talking about working with people who are experienced in producing soccer. How do you balance the expectations of the casual American fan, who is used to a specific way of watching sports on television, with those of an American soccer fan?
Cohen: There’s a natural maturation of what’s happened in our broadcasts. Over the last 12 years, we’ve all realized that maybe we shouldn’t spend our energy on trying to rein in the ‘casual fan’ on our MLS broadcasts. The telecasts are going to be designed not to shut out the average sports fan, but a little more to the point where we are going to go towards the soccer fan.
USSoccerPlayers: What about the differences between the way games are broadcast here and overseas?
Cohen: If you walked into a truck in Europe, and I have many times, each cameraman is, in a sense, his own director. Not only did they grow up with the sport, but they've been working with the sport in a technical capacity for a very long time. We didn't have that. So we could have a top-notch director and producer, but if the technical people don't understand the game, you're going to have issues.
When I first started with the league in 1996, I would walk into a truck and get tape guys and camera guys that didn't understand soccer. The league made a big commitment back then on the regional and national broadcasts to cultivate a core group of technical people that understand how to do the game. Now there are people who have been doing this for 12 years.
It's the same thing with producers, directors and play-by-play guys. We’d have people who weren’t doing hockey or volleyball that night, so they’d do soccer. Now we have people who are dedicated to soccer, and understand the intricacies of the game. You don’t have to have as many seminars and discuss what offside is.
As far as the analysts go, we said back in 1996 that it was going to be a good day when we develop our own Tim McCarvers, who came from the field and are now in the booth, having trained at a regional level, and are now doing the network games. We saw some guys who were friendly to the media and looked good on camera and talked well. These were the guys we ultimately wanted to see in the chair as our future analysts.
USSoccerPlayers: On the reverse side, when I started watching the Premiership, it was one guy in the booth. Now he's paired with an ex-player. And on Sunday, I was watching the Chelsea vs Liverpool match, and they tried to go to a sideline reporter, but there was a technical issue. So you’ve had to look to other countries to see how the game should be shot, but they’ve some American elements to theirs.
Cohen: I'm glad you brought that up. Just to be clear, in no way were ever arrogant in our production schemes. At the same time, we did have to understand that we are trying to market and promote a game a little more aggressively here. I don't like to use the term ‘Americanization,’ but we are sensitive to things that they don't have to be in Europe. Sometimes we get in trouble because of that, but in most cases I think we're doing the right thing. I'll give you a couple of examples.
In 1996, our director Doug Wren, who is one of the top directors in sports, had this vision of bringing more cameras down to field level so that when the ball went out of bounds, we could shoot the faces and the jerseys to build this brand, and try to turn these guys into stars.
We got a little bit of grief for that. There were people involved with the league who were fans of the international game that said, ‘That's not how it's done. And that low camera is blocking 15 seats.’ We were in 60,000-seat stadiums in most cases, and we didn't care that we were blocking 15 seats because we weren't filling them anyway. But if you watch the 1998 World Cup in France, there were more low cameras on the field than there ever were before. So we weren't going to be afraid to be aggressive, and in some cases, that was maybe copied.
If you look at the history of television, Roone Arledge at ABC Sports had a goal for sports television to give you a 50-yard line seat. Then, in the sixties and seventies, that changed to not only giving you the best seat in the house, but also to get you into the game. So we walked that line of alienating standard coverage, while introducing the kind of coverage we felt we needed to advance and market the sport in this country.
The other example started in 1999, when the first soccer-specific stadium opened in Columbus. The Hunt Group gave us a blank piece of paper and asked us where we wanted to put cameras. We didn't want to be at 60-65 feet, which is FIFA's standard play-by-play camera coverage. We wanted to get the game down to 40-50 feet. We are starting to do that in every stadium we build now.
Again, the purists came after us, saying that’s not how it’s done in Europe. But now, Chelsea is putting the new main play-by-play camera position at Stamford Bridge at just over 20 feet. Allianz Arena in Germany just sent me a DVD comparing their camera positions at the 2006 World Cup, which was close to 70 feet, to what they're using for Bayern Munich, which is 35-40 feet. It just makes sense to make the game more intimate. The days of seeing 22 dots on the screen are done. You can’t do that if you’re trying to market a sport.
USSoccerPlayers: What factors determine which games are nationally telecast?
Cohen: It’s a concerted effort between the networks and one of the executives here, Brad Pursel, who works on the schedule. We take into consideration the network needs, which are key match-ups and key cities. We also want to keep a lid on the number of network exclusive exposures a team can have, which is 12. We do that so they can still maintain a regional network relationship, which is extremely important in our league. As long as we can provide our teams 18 regional broadcasts for them to go off and sell to their affiliates, then that’s the limitation.
USSoccerPlayers: It does seem, though, that there is an emphasis on Los Angeles and Chicago, which is understandable because you want to showcase Beckham and Blanco. But are you worried about Beckham Overload, meaning that the desire to showcase one of the biggest soccer stars in the world overshadows not only the other teams in the league, but also the other 21 players on the field?
Cohen: There are two different issues. The first is overexposure. We want the biggest audience we can possibly get. At the same time, we want to promote our league. So if having 12 Galaxy exposures on national television is going to garner our biggest audiences, that’s a positive.
If you go back to what NBC used to do with the Chicago Bulls, they had a camera following Michael Jordan around for the whole game. So ESPN had a Beckham-cam so they could show an isolation replay of him. Once you're in the broadcast, it becomes this balance of having a major worldwide star, and broadcasting a soccer game.
USSoccerPlayers: What if LA has another bad season because they’ve given so much money to three players that they can’t improve the squad? You run the risk of losing the audience, because you've scheduled so many of their games.
Cohen: In a perfect situation, we’d have flexibility in our schedule. Maybe that will come down the road when we have all the stadiums under our control. Then, if we have something scheduled in September or October, then we can make that switch. Of course we want to see all of our players gain exposure on our broadcasts, not just one player. But we respect the network’s ability and desire to garner ratings.
USSoccerPlayers: It seems every year, there’s a little something new on the telecasts, like the yellow offside line. Is there anything new in store for 2008?
Cohen: In Fox’s pre-game shows, which we’re thrilled with, there will be an increase of locker room shots and pre-game interviews. The studio show they did was a tremendous asset to the league. It gave fans the ability to go inside the game. Building on that success is something Fox is able to do.
With ESPN, we’re happy with the selection of JP Dellacamera and John Harkes because they’re giving the game back to the fan. This year, they’re going to add super slo-mo cameras, which helps enhance the game coverage. When you see foot movement, ball movement, and great saves in super slo-mo, it’s probably the single biggest enhancement that we should be focused on throughout our broadcast. Over 12 years, you play with overhead cameras and animations, and ultimately it comes down to how you best cover the game. And we’re all in agreement that the more super slo-mo cameras you have, the better.
ESPN is also going to introduce a player tracking system by a company called Sportsvision to do a virtual 180-degree re-creation of the play. This was the ‘synthetic video’ that you saw at the US-Mexico game. It’s a good tool because it doesn’t cut away from the game action. But for analysis purposes at halftime or post-game, you’ll see the play in a cool way.
It goes back to the fact that we’re not trying to break away from the game, ever. We’re just trying to improve how the game is covered.
USSoccerPlayers: Although you've worked with MLS since the league began in 1996, according to your bio, your background isn’t in soccer. How did you wind up working in soccer?
Cohen: I liked the sport. My career started at ESPN in the mid-80s. So whenever I could, I would try to get assigned to a soccer game, which was limited to a college game here and there. I also loved international events, having worked the Olympics for NBC and CBS between 1990 and 1996. I also loved branding stuff, having worked on the first X-Games for ESPN. So the culmination of being able to launch a new property, work on an international game, and the fact that it was soccer -- it just came together when the network was looking for someone to produce the first game on ESPN in 1996.
Dave Lifton is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to USSoccerPlayers. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org