Major League Soccer is going down the route of ESPN's 30 for 30 and NFL Films by investing big money in a new content and distribution group called MLS+, MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler told SI.com on Tuesday. One of the first big initiatives, MLS Insider, is a weekly magazine show that will debut Friday on NBC Sports Network (and TSN in Canada) and feature in-depth storytelling on MLS by Emmy Award-winning director Jonathan Hock, whose work includes "The Best That Never Was" (on Marcus Dupree), "Unguarded" (on Chris Herren) and "Survive and Advance" (on Jim Valvano).
Hock's first show on Friday features pieces on New York's Tim Cahill, Los Angeles' Robbie Rogers and Philadelphia's Sons of Ben supporters group.
Handler, who has been the MLS CMO since January 2012, said MLS+ is part of the league's 10-year plan to improve the game on the field while also helping create a bigger fanbase off the field.
"There was a missing piece in my mind, and that was telling the stories behind the game and helping people see things they couldn't normally see if they were just attending a game," Handler said. "The difference between what we're doing and NBA Entertainment or NFL Films is we are working with heavyweight storytellers and producers and partners that in many cases live outside our building."
Handler, a big 30 for 30 junkie, met Hock when they were both doing work for the NFL, and he said Hock is a true student of Steve Sabol, the legendary NFL Films director whose work helped spur the enormous growth of that league.
"I worked with Steve at NFL Films, and we saw what the power of storytelling in sports was together," Handler said. "When Jon and I hooked up it was immediate, because he has always kept an eye on soccer and was starting to tell us about things he was observing about the growth of soccer in North America and the maturing of MLS. We kicked around a lot of different ideas, and he wanted to settle in and do a weekly show."
MLS+ will also include mini-documentaries and digital series, which will appear on a number of platforms.
"We are creating hundreds of hours of premium programming, and it's programming that we have not created thus far," Handler said. "So it's a very substantial investment.
"Ultimately, MLS will have the most meaning and relevance when it transcends the highlights and statistics and means something much bigger. That's what we want to capture with MLS+. If we're able to be successful, this could be one of the more powerful things we do in terms of growing our fanbase."