MLS and Apple
Analysis: The pros, cons, and unknows of the MLS deal with Apple TV
June 13, 2022
ON TUESDAY, MLS made a major announcement that the new broadcast deal starting next season would move to Apple TV and it would include all of the league’s games including select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches.
The deal was reportedly worth $250 million per year, and it will start in 2023 and run for 10 years. This deal will take the league through the 2026 World Cup when soccer is expected to take an elevated spotlight in this country.
The big news for this deal is that local broadcasts are now out for MLS teams. There are, however, still discussions with linear television such as ESPN for select games. These games would still run under the MLS/Apple production.
Right now, everyone is still digesting this. Here are the pros, cons, and unknowns of it all, as I see it.
Apple has money & upside: If you’re a growing league and are going to be aligned with a company, Apple isn’t a bad choice. Now, Apple is not a big streaming service compared with Amazon and others. But that could change overnight. It depends on original content and rights agreements with leagues. If Apple wins the NFL Sunday Ticket and puts it on Apple TV and/or wins another major rights package, Apple becomes massive. With Apple, it is not unrealistic to think they have the money to make it happen. Once that happens, Apple TV will start popping up in bars and sports gathering places pretty quickly.
MLS seems like the first step for Apple, but one which Apple is going to take seriously. Apple should be able to promote it effectively with their money and platforms. With MLS having a younger fanbase, Apple has the potential to reach a core demographic easily.
More and more leagues are heading in this direction. We’ve seen it with European leagues being shown here. Major League Baseball is now also being shown on Amazon with the New York Yankees airing their Friday night games on Amazon.
All the games are in one, set place: If you want to watch any MLS team, you simply go to Apple TV. It is there for you.
Production value likely increased: Under the current format on the national front with ESPN, Fox, and UniMas, sometimes MLS games would be well produced, sometimes it would be poor. The same could be said for the local broadcasts and it would vary quite a bit. MLS is now gearing all the production to make it more uniform.
No cable bundle or local blackouts: There will be no local blackouts anymore and people who have “cut the cord” with cable and have lost access to their local team can now be able to watch them. There is also the international element so that as Apple grows internationally, MLS games can be viewed with no international restrictions.
Linear TV still in play: Per the release, linear TV outlets such as ESPN are still in play. The production will still be Apple/MLS but then also distributed to the linear provider. This is a good thing as MLS will not have all of its eggs in one basket in terms of viewership. Plus, linear television outlets (even those who aren’t in the mix for MLS games but who might want to be in years ahead) are then still incentivized to covering the league. That being said, even if these games are shown on linear TV, they will still also be shown on Apple because a core part of the Apple deal is that all games are shown in one spot. The drawback, however, is that the non-exclusivity of the linear rights means they are worth less than if they were exclusive.
Increased revenue will improve the league: The $250 million (minus production costs) will help the league at a time when it is trying to compete globally for players. Teams should now have more money to spend on players, coaches, youth teams, and facilities. Soccer is globally competitive, and teams need money. Perhaps this will also help increase the salary cap.
Schedule uniformity: With this deal, MLS games are now going to be overwhelmingly schedule on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Make-up dates, or perhaps some needed flexibility (such as when the Seattle Sounders had their schedule cleared so they could focus on the Champions League run) might change that. Also, linear TV rights might also force some flexibility for different time frames. But aside from that, MLS games now have set times in the week and fans can now adjust to knowing when their team will play.
Season ticket holders rewarded: MLS season ticket holders are rewarded with a subscription to the MLS package on Apple. It is a fair way to show loyalty to those fans who support the league’s teams.
The negatives and the unknowns
There are always risks to being the trailblazer and MLS becoming the first league to go exclusively to streaming is a risk. While MLS is in the path of progress, there are a lot of risks.
Local edge in question: Having local coverage of a team is a good thing. The fact that NFL or many European soccer leagues don’t have them is not a good thing. At a national coverage level, popular teams are covered more. One thing that is not known yet is whether or not a local-based crew will cover a designated team. For example, will Apple have a set local crew that covers Nashville, the Red Bulls, or Sporting Kansas City? The benefit to having a crew that covers just one team is that they can be experts on the team and provide expertise. Fans of a team tend to know more about the team than those involved in national coverage. Local coverage grows the game well and we don’t know how or if Apple will have local teams to cover each of the teams.
The biggest risk, however, is local fans now needing to pay to subscribe in order to watch their local team. This doesn't include season ticket holders who get a subscription. But now a Philadelphia resident who is a non-season ticket holder to the Union will have to buy a subscription to watch the Union. Do these people get lost?
Another streaming service: there are a lot of streaming services to subscribe. Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. For sports fans (such as MLS), there is ESPN, Paramount, HBO Max, and Peacock – all of whom have soccer rights in some manner. Now Apple is going to need to compete for people to sign up for another. Not everyone will.
Betting on Apple: MLS is likely betting that it is attaching itself to a rising platform in Apple. As mentioned in the “the good section,” Apple has money and therefore incredible potential. But that still means its needs to deliver in terms of becoming a massive platform in comparison with Prime, Netflix, or ESPN/Disney. MLS will grow as Apple TV grows. It’s not a bad bet, but it’s still a bet. MLS would help if Apple TV wins NFL or other major sports.
How much money?: We know about the $250 million price tag Apple is paying MLS, but there are some questions that could make this deal worth more, or less. For one, MLS is going to be producing the games. Do the production costs come out of the $250 million? If so, is MLS required to spend a certain amount to produce the games to provide a quality production to Apple TV? What exactly is the production budget?
Also, this is the first rights deal from the league to cut out local coverage. We knew from previous deals with ESPN or Fox what they were paying the league for the rights. But neither of these rights forced the league to give up local rights packages.
There was a value to that and an accurate reflection of the Apple deal is the $250 million minus the loss of local rights packages and minus the cost of production value (assuming the production costs were not included in the $250 million).
There is, however, the potential for this value to go up when adding the sale of some games to linear television outlets but as mentioned above, if ESPN (for example) acquires rights to games, they won’t be worth as much as the previous package given the non-exclusivity as games will also be shown on Apple TV.
So, there are some important variables that make the value of the deal not quite set.
MLS Cup and major games: The league likes to have its best games more widely accessible. Over the years, MLS Cup has aired on Fox national, ABC national, ESPN (in primetime). This is a showcase for the league. Is there going to be a way to have this game or other major games beyond Apple?
CCL and Open Cup games: It remains to be seen how the CONCACAF Champions League will fit into this. Will Apple make a play for these games? The Open Cup is part of U.S. Soccer's package but what is the value in that tournamnet when being covered by a right's provider who also does not have MLS rights?
Also, the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League was such a massive moment for the league as the Sounders won the tournament to become the first MLS team in the modern era to win it. With Fox covering that tournament, at least it was with a network that also had an MLS rights package. Is another network without an MLS rights package going to want to cover the tournament seriously and with important production value? Would Apple also step to the plate and bid to cover it?