Sky transformed English soccer. Will Apple’s $2.5bn deal do the same for MLS?
The league’s matches will now be broadcast behind a paywall on a streaming service. But that doesn’t mean fans will be driven away
Graham Ruthven, Thu 16 Jun 2022 05.00 EDT
One wonders if anyone at Major League Soccer had the famous 1984 commercial for the Apple Macintosh playing through their mind as the league penned a $2.5bn deal to stream its games on Apple TV for the next 10 years. Indeed, the image of a sledgehammer crashing into a giant TV screen is a rather apt one to illustrate what the league has done with its new deal.
MLS hasn’t completely turned its back on traditional TV – reports claim the league is still in negotiations with linear broadcasters to show some games – but there’s no denying the significance of the decision to work with Apple, the partner Don Garber wanted all along. “When we started out this process we had a logo on the whiteboard, and that logo was the Apple logo,” said the league commissioner.
Fans will notice a difference. All matches will be played on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Local broadcasts will be a thing of the past. So too will blackouts – every single match will be available in every state (and every country) on Apple TV. Matches will be broadcast in 1080p (many of the current broadcasts are in 720p and 1080i) and will come with a local radio audio option. On top of this, MLS season-ticket holders will receive access to the service for free.
This new deal was years in the making. As long ago as 2019, the league told clubs not to sign local deals beyond 2022 – the intent behind that instruction is now clear. Garber had initially set March 2022 as the date for an announcement on the new contract. As that date came and went without any news, it was suspected that MLS hadn’t received the offers it had hoped.
The $250m-a-year deal is more lucrative than many had anticipated (the previous deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision was worth $90m-a-year). That being said, MLS has signed off its broadcast rights for the next decade for a lot less than many other leagues receive (the Premier League receives $450m-a-year from NBC for its American broadcast rights alone). Will MLS still view this deal as good value in 2032?
It also remains to be seen how putting every match on a streaming service (and behind a paywall – fans will have to pay separately to access MLS’s new streaming vertical through Apple TV) will impact the league’s overall viewership and exposure. But TV has been such a puzzle for MLS it is unsurprising, and maybe even wise, for the league to attempt to piece together a completely different picture for itself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time MLS has partnered with a streaming service. The league’s out-of-market matches have been available to watch on ESPN+ since 2018. Before that, MLS operated its own centralised streaming service called MLS Live. Garber and others at MLS were quicker than most to recognise the shift in broadcast habits among American sports fans.
While Apple has an agreement with MLB to show Friday Night Baseball, its new MLS deal is the biggest live sports deal the company has ever struck. Live MLS games will form an important part of Apple TV’s content strategy. Indeed, Apple may be counting on benefiting from the ‘World Cup bump’ that is anticipated in 2026, when Canada, Mexico and the USA co-host the tournament. It may also be anticipating the rumoured arrival of Lionel Messiin MLS at some point in the future. Whatever the working behind the equation, Apple clearly believes MLS will boost the value of its streaming service. That says something about the league’s standing in the North American sports landscape.
A whip-around show on Saturday evenings will give MLS its very own Red Zone. For a league with so many teams (29 from 2023) this will be an effective way to keep across a league that spans two countries. Broadcasts will come with a lot more shoulder-programming, something that should help MLS position itself as the major league it has always aspired to be: broadcasts will never again be delayed because of an overrunning college basketball game (as happened in 2021).
There could also be potential for Apple and MLS to work together on supplementary content. If MLS hasn’t already pitched a Drive To Survive-type docuseries to its new streaming partners, it should. F1’s fortunes in the States have been transformed by the Netflix show that allows viewers to step behind the curtain. Apple recently produced a docuseries about Magic Johnson, capitalising on the trend started by The Last Dance. Could something similar be produced about David Beckham’s time at the LA Galaxy or Freddy Adu’s breakthrough as a 14-year-old professional at DC United?
Some have expressed concern that MLS could lose casual fans by largely turning its back on traditional TV, but the league has a younger support basethan most. How many fans have truly been drawn to MLS by flicking through the channels? The modern sports fan is more interested in storytelling and Apple TV should give MLS a better platform to tell the tale of its teams and players.
Most broadcast deals fail to move the needle, and there’s no guarantee this one will change much for MLS. But not every broadcast deal has the potential upside of MLS’s new agreement with Apple. It could be a landmark moment in MLS’s history just as the Premier League’s bold decision to partner with Sky Sports in the early 1990s was in English soccer’s history. Another memorable Apple commercial used the slogan “Think Different”. MLS is certainly doing that here.