Do Apple’s MLS broadcasts merely exist to promote the league’s agenda?

<span>Players such as Luis Suárez have brought star power to MLS. </span><span>Photograph: Chris Arjoon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Players such as Luis Suárez have brought star power to MLS. Photograph: Chris Arjoon/AFP/Getty Images

It is a truism that referees are doing a good job if you don’t notice them. It also appears to be the official policy of MLS.

Salient plotlines as the 2024 campaign unfurls are the first full season of Lionel Messi in Miami, the controversial withdrawal of most MLS clubs from the US Open Cup and the use of replacement referees because of a labor dispute.

For the first of these, the league’s official channels very much have you covered. But fans watching MLS on Apple TV, which streams every match, would learn little about the other two newsworthy narratives. Which is just how the league wants it.

This is how the referee was introduced to viewers by commentator Jake Zivin shortly before kick-off in Inter Miami’s 5-0 win over Orlando City on 2 March: “The man in charge today, Jaime Herrera, he refereed Houston and Sporting Kansas City last week, a 47-year-old experienced referee originally from Mexico.”

It might have been of interest to viewers if Zivin had added that Herrera was a last-minute replacement for the replacement. The original choice was dropped a couple of hours before kick-off after photos emerged on social media of him wearing an Inter Miami shirt.

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Nor is it a stretch to imagine that viewers might appreciate some context around controversial calls. Especially given the spotlight on Messi’s every move, it would seem pertinent that arguably the greatest player of all time is earning fouls (or not) awarded by officials plucked from the lower divisions, the college game and the ranks of the retired.

“I know the players and the coaches and the technical staffs in the league are very nervous about it, I think it’s going to be one of those storylines that we’re talking about in the first month of the season depending on how long the lockout goes,” Taylor Twellman, Apple TV’s top MLS analyst, told the Awful Announcing podcast last month.

Or not. The Athletic obtained a memo sent by MLS to TV and radio broadcasters last weekend instructing them to minimize references to the referees and the lockout: “Fans tune in to watch and listen to the game. They aren’t focused on the officials,” it claimed. “Therefore, we don’t believe it is necessary to belabor the point during the match. It is best to mention the situation in the pregame and move on.”

The Athletic added that the memo said that the replacements should be described as “referees, no other description necessary” beyond cursory biographical details, and that agreeing or disagreeing with a debatable decision is fine provided there is no suggestion that the replacements were “the reason for the controversial call”. An MLS spokesperson did not respond to a Guardian request for comment.

“It’s a little unusual for a league to actually take the step of saying something like that,” says Ed Desser, a sports media consultant and former NBA executive with extensive experience of negotiating rights deals, though sometimes, he adds, an expectation to take a particular editorial line “may be implied”.

Downplaying officials’ roles and not dwelling on their errors suits the league’s purposes. As the lockout drags on, it strengthens MLS’s negotiating position to promote the impression that the replacement officials are doing well and that it is business as usual even without the first-choice crews. Anything else would hand leverage to the regular referees.

The practical effect of such invitations to self-censor is that the only way that the public can watch live broadcasts of MLS games – barring 34 fixtures on Fox channels – is through a lens shaped by the league that has more in common with marketing than journalism. It is the broadcast as an extension of the stadium matchday experience: standardized and carefully curated, accentuating the positive, sticking rigidly and respectfully to the branding, ethos as rose-tinted as an Inter Miami kit.

Twellman became the US’s pre-eminent soccer analyst thanks to his astute and blunt verdicts on ESPN, his reputation as an unvarnished teller of hard truths forged by a volcanic 2017 evisceration of the US men’s team. As the star voice of Apple TV’s coverage he has cut a more diplomatic figure.

Before the season opener he interviewed the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, on Apple TV. “Last year was the best year in MLS history,” Twellman told Garber, citing Apple TV as one of the reasons. “How do you top that?” He did ask Garber about the lockout, which enabled the commissioner to rail unchallenged against the union members.

There is nothing new in the tension between the desire to earn viewers’ trust by delivering frank and accurate coverage and the financial reality that media companies pay major leagues billions of dollars for rights, so an enormous amount of money is riding on the ability to keep eyeballs on screens even during the dullest goalless draw.

Partiality, whether overt or by careful choice of words or omission of certain facts, has always been baked in to regional broadcasts, where teams often select the commentators and run their own networks. Last year the Baltimore Orioles reportedly insisted that broadcasters wear team-branded clothes while on air and suspended an announcer for the sin of pointing out that the MLB team had a terrible road record against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“A licensee of any league or conference has a self-serving motivation to support that property because they have a financial interest in its success, so you start with that basic proposition,” says Desser.

“Then you continue down the road and recognise that announcers are faced with the prospect of the viewer seeing with their own eyes what is happening. So you can’t really stray very far from the reality of what’s on the field … What the dynamics drive towards is a relatively accurate portrayal of what is going on, but without the kind of piling on that you can often see in, say, print journalism.” He adds: “There’s a line between the official licensed telecast that is presenting the event and just raw editorial bombast.”

What is new is that we are in the streaming era. Traditional networks target a general audience, present a range of sports in a variety of formats and are an obligatory component of many cable TV bundles. They also employ journalists in news-gathering divisions, with ESPN in particular building a business model based on being a trusted news source as well as a purveyor of live action.

Apple is selling a single commodity – MLS – with exclusive broadcasts that, as replacements of local telecasts, chiefly appeal to committed fans of specific clubs (or a specific player, in Messi’s case). The success of a deal netting the league $2.5bn over 10 years depends on how many subscribers Season Pass attracts and retains. Subscriptions are easy to cancel and highlighting the refereeing dispute would alert customers to the fact that they are paying up to $99 a season or $14.99 a month for a slightly substandard product. Failing to do so, given the near-monopoly, is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for fans.

Nor is there any tradition of editorial objectivity or duty to provide balance in the corporate culture of a famously secretive technology company – or, for that matter, a sports league that exists to further the interests of its select group of owners. Apple TV representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the memo and to interview Twellman.

Adding clubs and fans, improving on the field, reveling in the arrival of Messi, its franchises and broadcasting rights soaring in value, MLS could have shown the confidence to let its storytellers speak freely. Instead – perhaps precisely because it is now a multibillion dollar business employing the world’s most famous footballer, rather than despite those advantages – it seems to be keen to boss the narrative. And it is in a strong position to do so, given the unique nature of its streaming deal, the limited attention it receives from national media and local newspapers’ fade to black.

Underlining the sensitivity, and serving as a cautionary tale for any broadcasters harboring trenchant opinions that might threaten the anodyne-by-design tenor, Jeremy Filosa, a French-language commentator for Vancouver Whitecaps games on Apple TV last season, alleged he was sacked for what he said were “sometimes harsh opinions” on social media about CF Montreal.

“Any play-by-play announcer or analyst or field reporter who can’t pursue a story is not able to do her or his job,” says Malcolm Moran, a former New York Times sportswriter who is director of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IU Indianapolis. Across US sports, he believes, “If anything, broadcasters have got more scrutiny as the rights-holder arrangements have become more and more lucrative and independent journalists realize that the stakes are going up as the price tag goes up.”

He adds: “The danger that the league runs because of the credibility issue is that you’ve got independent media organisations that are going to be covering that story. And if they’re reporting X but the league outlets and/or broadcasters are reporting Y or ignoring it, they’re just going to look foolish … Fans know what they’re looking at.”