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Guest column: MLS 360 needs to take a 180

Less talk, more action — and no, we don't want to look at the back of your heads

Taylor Twellman made MLS 360’s inaugural matchday that much more fun.
Courtesy Apple TV/MLS Season Pass

After downing a few consolatory brown liquor shots on February 25 to soothe my bruised fandom from New York City FC’s 2-0 loss at Nashville SC to kick off the 2023 MLS season, I settled in for what was promised to be a historic night for the league as AppleTV unveiled its MLS Season Pass package for its first Matchday.

What I was most eager to see was the MLS 360 nightly whiparound show — promising to show you goals, action, controversies, and highlights from all of the ongoing games, much like the much-heralded NFL RedZone whiparound channel hops in and out of Sunday’s contests.

For neutrals who want to consume max MLS when their team isn’t playing, it’s the showcase the league desperately needs, and needs to work well, showing off all of the exciting players from coast to coast.

But what NFL RedZone excels at in abundance – Host Scott Hanson taking you from game to game, bringing you key plays, explaining what’s happening, and switching away immediately to new highlights when needed – MLS 360 found itself lacking on Day 1.

Here are the two most notable issues with MLS 360 I saw on the first night, and how a few of the problems were addressed this past Saturday:

1. Focus on the action, not the hosts and studio

Early in the 7:30 pm match window, with seven games active, MLS 360 did several odd in-studio segments, showing the four hosts with backs to the camera watching a video wall, showing one of the matches (DC United vs Toronto FC), all taking turns commenting on DC and Toronto’s future season.

Then, they left the seven matches altogether to show pre-game warmups at Austin for four to five — while SEVEN other matches were ongoing.

That’s great and all, but that’s talk that should be saved for their MLS Countdown pre-show. (Maybe it was, and just carried over and repeated here.)

It happened again when the two 8:30 pm matches were finishing up, as St. Louis CITY was finishing up their historic first MLS win at Austin FC. MLS 360 focused on long, in-studio roundtable segments instead of staying with the in-game action in Dallas or Austin.

And while doing this, they kept the matches on the back video wall, just to tease you about what you’re not seeing, and instead focused more on the personalities in-studio instead of key moments in the matches at hand.

When matches were ending, they went off-topic. Better to save the nonsense of favorite playlists for late-night, after matches are all done.

This is an easy fix for MLS 360’s director: Show the game action first and foremost. Have lead host Liam McHugh take the primary conductor role in this soccer analyst symphony and lead discussion on the teams on-screen. And keep discussions to McHugh and one to two others at most during the action — or let the in-game commentators voice the action of their games when featured on MLS 360.

Yes, I get that you have six or seven soccer hosts in-house at the 106th Street NYC studio on a Matchday that all want face time on camera. But instead of showing them full-screen, put the hosts into a picture-in-picture box in the corner while the action dominates the TV.

It’s not about the hosts. It’s not about their face time. It’s about the games and the players — feature them and show them the respect they deserve.

2. Better timing on commercials

Obviously, if you pay $99 per year for MLS Season Pass, you can’t be excited to see commercials interrupting the action — especially when matches play a full half without interruption on TV, which is one of the great features of watching soccer.

But you can’t leave key moments of action because a commercial is scheduled at a fixed time. That’s a cardinal sin for a whiparound show.

MLS Season Pass needs to find a main sponsor for MLS 360, who will get their logo on screen off-and-on during each half of action, and avoid the need to cut away to commercials during a half. Pack the commercials in before and after the halftime and full-time reports instead.

Also, make the last 15 minutes of matches sacred. Create some sort of “Final 15” focus, that hops from match to match, moment to moment, from the 75th minute on through the final whistle. The “Final 15” would be a great sponsorable element, by the way. MSG Network does this with the “Final 5” minutes in hockey games.

But Taylor Twellman, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles and his postponed Rose Bowl El Traffico assignment, made my night with his energy — and his bashing of the bias of the hosts in favor of the New Jersey Red Bulls. He was the star of the night.

Despite these observations from Week 1, by no means is MLS 360 a lost cause. With changes in focus to action over personalities, in-game action over in-studio segments, and fewer commercials intruding on key match moments, this flagship offering of MLS Season Pass can be salvaged, and make Matchday nights a must-see.

3. Matchday 2 impressions

Well, it looks like the MLS 360 team listened to our Twitter rabble…

In the very first minute of Matchday 2’s MLS 360, Liam McHugh laughed at the criticism of the look-at-our-backs/butts shot from Week 1, and host Kaylyn Kyle proudly pronounced “We’re listening…”

And with 10 matches in the opening two windows, the broadcast did a great job staying with the action all thru the night. Only late, when there were just the three 9:30 pm Et to 10:30 pm ET matches, did they go to a lot of in-studio segments.

Here are some quick-hitting notes:

  • Stagger Kickoffs: I saw a lot of complaining league-wide about big differences in announced start times and actual kickoff times. The Red Bulls game was announced for 7:30 pm ET, but the kickoff wasn’t until 7:40 pm ET. If MLS is doing this to stagger the endings for the benefit of MLS 360 viewing, I’m all for it, but then give us the real kickoff time. We’re big kids, we can handle it.
  • Where’d Glenn Go? NYCFC radio announcer Glenn Crooks tried to show us how to watch City on MLS Season Pass with his radio broadcast as audio, but when you joined the match, only English and Spanish TV announcers were available in the audio selection menu. This needs to be fixed ASAP. We gotta get Glenn’s great goal calls! (Try saying that five times fast.)
  • Four Score... Below was the go-to-commercial shot of four ongoing matches. Please, Season Pass gods, you have to give the audience the chance to “Quad-box” their choice of four games, like what ESPN+ does. Otherwise, we’re stuck on one match, or MLS 360’s choice of match, or the in-studio coverage.
  • The Midweek Void: If you looked at MLS 360 mid-week, there was very little fresh content or analysis on NYCFC or the league as a whole, and with the two big signings of James Sands and Santiago Rodríguez, there should have been more. NYCFC released interviews with both Sands and Santi, but why didn’t they make it to the NYCFC section of MLS Season Pass? Why are only Extratime’s podcast and the MLS Rewind syndicated recap program the only midweek content of length?

MLS needs to develop an “MLS Today” show to air daily during the week, similar to ESPN’s “ESPN FC” daily show. Go anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, depending on what you have to discuss, and be sure to podcast the show out in the late evening after it airs on AppleTV.

Speaking of the podiverse, consider Matchday’s MLS Wrap-Up show for a podcast, along with an MLS 360 podcast to feature a digest of the Matchday’s best in-studio discussions. The audience is there.

Corey Clayton (@CoreyClayton on Twitter) is a former sports journalist and newspaper editor, currently a news industry social media executive, a Founding Member STH of New York City FC in Section 110, and a charter member of The Third Rail.