MLS NEXT GM Justin Bokmeyer on league’s 4th season, Apple TV, and more
By Sean Maslin
SoccerWire Staff Writer
The fourth year of any soccer league is always a critical inflection point. After years of hard work in setting goals and expectations, developing one’s voice, and working through the growing pains that come with creating a new league, major results can finally start to show.
Through a significant partnership with Apple TV, strong club membership and more opportunities to compete at the next level for their players, the 2023-24 campaign stands to be a major season in the growth and development of MLS NEXT.
“We are super excited and super optimistic about this upcoming season,” said MLS NEXT General Manager Justin Bokmeyer. “We have 143 clubs coming into this season and we just look to build on the success of last year. I am excited about the U.S. Youth Soccer ecosystem and I am excited where MLS is headed.”
Bokmeyer joined MLS NEXT last February, after previously working in International Basketball Operations for the National Basketball Association. He had also previously served as the Director of Lacrosse Operations at the United States Military Academy. Bokmeyer also served 11 years of active duty in the U.S. Army.
His hiring earlier this year came at a time of marked success for the youth league. With more players advancing from the MLS NEXT structure and signing Homegrown Player contracts for MLS teams, the pathway that has always been discussed in the U.S. Soccer has become clearer. While growth has been occurring over time, 2022-23 does seem to have all the hallmarks of a turning point.
Part of that success last year was the additional streaming option of events through Apple TV. As part of the league’s 10-year broadcast agreement with Apple, MLS NEXT events such as MLS NEXT FLEX, the Generation Adidas Cup, and the MLS NEXT Playoffs were all streamed through the league’s Apple platform. Although some of these events had been streamed in the past, the deal with Apple allowed for an expanded number of matches (70 last year) to be shown with a much higher level of production value.
“It is an amazing partnership between two phenomenal brands,” said Bokmeyer. “To be able to partner with Apple TV and have the best youth soccer in North America be broadcast is amazing. I think you look at the opportunity to broadcast our games in over 100 countries with that level of quality and professionalism and connect it with what our league is doing is phenomenal. I think year one was a huge success.”
Expanded access to clubs was a major benefit to the league.
“I think one of the biggest things that we are most proud of is how many clubs in the initial 70 games were put on it,” Bokmeyer continued. “We had 55 different MLS NEXT clubs, between MLS academies and our elite academies, showcased to fans across the world. For me, that was what I was most proud of-the breadth of teams, players, and coaches that were able to be broadcasted on the platform.”
Working with Apple also provided the league with the opportunity to create unique, original content with one of the leading content producers in the world. In addition to raw footage from games, clubs such as FC Dallas have used the opportunity to do reports on their Academy programs, showcasing their players from across the various age groups.
For Bokmeyer, streaming is a critical component of MLS NEXT’s goals and objectives. The league is still currently working on its options for the 2023-24 season but is looking to continue to provide streaming services for its major events.
“[Streaming] is critical,” he said. “For the clubs to see the investment and how much we care about making it happen for them. It is important to us that parents, family, friends that cannot make it onsite get to see high quality matches and see their players perform at a high level. I think it is also important to Major League Soccer as a whole globally. It puts the best and brightest youth players on a platform to be showcased around the world.”
Maintaining that high level of quality is of importance to the league and Bokmeyer, both in terms of the game presentation and the matches themselves. One of the major areas of focus for the league is the state of refereeing in youth soccer and keeping them engaged.
“We want to protect referees and we want to ensure that we are doing everything in part that they engage correctly with the games and the teams,” said Bokmeyer. “Education is a big part of this as well. We utilize PRO at all of our events to help educate and bring value around our events to help referees and that ecosystem. We want to ensure that we are doing the right things and that our teams are doing the right things and that we value them. We will also continue to look at ways to integrate and help that ecosystem out because it is critical. It is vital that we are a part of it and that we play an important role in developing referees.”
Concussions are also a major topic that the league is continuing to face heading into the upcoming season. MLS NEXT works with both the MLS league office and U.S. Soccer to implement concussion guidelines. Prior to the season, players are required to take impact baseline testing. The league, in conjunction with U.S. Soccer, will be moving to size four soccer balls for the U13 age group.
As it seems to be throughout the US Youth Soccer landscape, expansion is also an issue that MLS NEXT continues to work through. The league added eleven new clubs for the 2023-24 season bringing their league to 143 clubs, 677 teams, and over 15,000 players from across the U.S. and Canada.
For MLS NEXT, the league takes a holistic view on each club, looking at not just their organization’s structure but also their vision, history, and goals for not just their club, but their players both on and off of the pitch.
“For us it is really that professional environment,” said Bokmeyer. “Those who have the structure, the governance, the leadership, and the vision for what that club does and can prove it are important indicators for us when reviewing expansion opportunities. Putting the players first as human beings and the support that they put around them is also an important part of the process,” he added.
Having that support for players and allowing them to continue to grow is an important part of any league, but in particular for MLS NEXT. Over the years, MLS NEXT clubs have increasingly become a major pathway for talent looking to play soccer at the highest levels, both in MLS and abroad. Continuing to strengthen that pathway is a major goal for MLS NEXT.
“We want to see more professional homegrown players from the U.S. and Canada joining Major League Soccer and getting meaningful minutes there,” said Bokmeyer. “I think that the ultimate goal is to continue to develop our talent to play at the highest level.”