New MLS media deal should help the league despite a few lingering questions
MLS and Apple announced an innovative media deal Tuesday, with Apple continuing its push into sports broadcasting by streaming every MLS game for the next 10 seasons. The reportedly $2.5 billion deal creates an MLS exclusive streaming package and touts no blackouts, ever.
Viewers with Apple and certain smart devices can access MLS games through the Apple TV app. Streams will also be available for everyone worldwide on the Apple TV website. The price of the MLS package remains unknown but will be free for season ticket holders.
Some details are still forthcoming, but with the deal starting next season those pieces should be filled in sooner rather than later. For now, a fair amount of information is available, and the reaction has been largely positive. So what are the benefits, and what are the few questions that still remain?
Every game, everywhere is always a good thing
The biggest selling point - and the one best received - has been the promise of no blackouts. The MLS package will include every league game, every Leagues Cup game (unless you are in Mexico) and some MLS Next Pro and MLS Next matches. This promise is not just for the US and Canada but for the entire world.
This means the blackouts that effectively blocked many fans from watching their local teams are gone. Casual fans with initial interest in the league or their local clubs may have been frustrated by needing multiple platforms previously, and not being able to watch your own team is obviously detrimental. While the deal means local broadcasts will be gone, many of those offerings were only available on expensive cable packages that are quickly going the way of DVDs.
Apple TV will have three subscription levels available, with varying numbers of games available on each. The yet to be named MLS package, available in the Apple TV app and website, will have every game, as listed above.
Apple TV+, the subscription service that features shows like Ted Lasso, will offer a "broad selection ... including some of the biggest matchups." Apple TV, a free service, will show a "limited number of matches."
Fans do not need to subscribe to Apple TV+ to subscribe to the MLS package, and vice versa. Some games may also be broadcast simultaneously on traditional networks like ESPN, pending the league's agreements with other broadcasters. On-demand matches are also touted in the announcement, but it is currently unknown how many games will be available.
New shows and other coverage should increase fandom levels, draw in new audiences
One criticism of the league's current partners is their lack of advertising and coverage outside of game broadcasts, potentially explaining the poor viewership numbers. Apple promises to fix that issue in a variety of ways. Apple News will feature highlights and news coverage on every team. There has also been the promise of additional "original programming."
The biggest announcement in this field is a new "whip-around" show that will likely be similar to the NFL Network's NFL RedZone, showing goals and other big moments from every game currently underway. So rather than picking one of three games that start at the same time to watch, fans can watch this new show to get everything they need as it happens from every game.
The news coverage and whatever else comes down the pipe could turn casual fans into serious fans as more access to clubs become available. More importantly, new fans will hopefully be drawn in through increased exposure and more entertaining content.
Set kickoff times provide a structure for the league to maximize exposure
MLS games are currently scattered across virtually every day of the week and played at any time of the day. Apple hopes to only have games on Wednesday and Saturday nights. The lack of Sunday games will stop the league from trying to compete with the NFL, a battle they are losing handily and will likely continue losing for years to come. By having a consistent, less competitive broadcast window, MLS can maximize viewership and create a product that fans can routinely schedule into their weeks.
Avoiding weird scheduling quirks will also avoid a conflict within the world of soccer itself. Take last night for example. MLS decided to schedule a league game between Seattle and Vancouver at the same time as the US Men's National Team's game at El Salvador. This means Sounder fans, and maybe even some Whitecap fans, had to choose between their club team and national team. It also means viewership for either is down as a number of fans chose between one or the other instead of watching both, and US fans who may have tuned into the league game were unable to.
Pre and postgame shows will hopefully improve advertising and fan commitment
Apple has promised shows before and after every game, with additional club/local shows before and after each pre and postgame. Ideally, these shows help fans learn the storylines and narratives of the league, which brings them back for more.
That type of content is missing from current programing, and last night's USMNT game provides another example. Fox went to commercial about 30 seconds after the final whistle, and each member of the studio crew then gave a final thought before the five-minute-max show ended. The company was apparently in a rush to show a rerun of the Germany vs Italy UEFA Nations League match from earlier in the day.
There is certainly something to be said about trying to draw viewers into another match, but the US needs to increase exposure to American soccer before European soccer. Obviously Fox is under no obligation to grow the league, but as a network that broadcasts MLS games every week, one would assume it would be beneficial to them to find a way to segway that night's national team game into a preview of their MLS content. For example, viewers could have learned where to watch someone like Jordan Morris, who grabbed last night's equalizer.
Is Apple TV too niche?
One of the benefits of having games on stations like ESPN, and even more available on their app through ESPN+, is that viewers may stumble across MLS games and tune in. It is impossible to tell how much that happens and if anyone comes back after, but a designated streaming service for just one league does not allow for channel flipping. The vast majority of sports fans have ESPN and FS1 and therefore could tune in if they want something to watch and nothing else is on.
Not only are people less likely to stumble across MLS games, they would have to pay to watch even if they got to that point. This issue might be attempted to be solved through certain games available outside the MLS package via Apple TV+ and the free Apple TV. Still, ending up on a streaming service is a lot harder than ending up on a game from channel flipping.
Ultimately the answer to this question will be answered in Apple's willingness to advertise outside its own platforms. They will never really have channel surfers, but if they are on top of things they can draw in plenty of new viewers.
Something to keep in mind as well is that MLS is not Apple's first foray into sports, as they started baseball coverage this season. Subscribers to Apple TV+ can watch an MLB doubleheader every Friday night, including pre and postgame shows. Apple is trying the same no blackout strategy, and it will be interesting to see the results. If the company continues to expand its sports portfolio, MLS will be in an even better position.
Can MLS deliver quality content?
MLS has been quick to tout Apple's status as a technology mastermind, which would hypothetically lead to innovative broadcasts. However, the production is going to be run by the league. That means MLS has a lot to get ready for.
They currently have a few videos on YouTube (like Instant Replay), a pair of podcasts (The Call Up and ExtraTime) and the occasional chat on Twitter Spaces. That's not a lot of existing content, and the league's recent foray into broadcasting with MLS Next Pro has received significant backlash. Obviously the league knew about the deal before it was announced yesterday, but the new season starts in about nine months, which is not a lot of time to get ready for 15+ games a week.
Plus, MLS has not proven to be the most tech-savvy company. The MLS app is fairly buggy and that same quality on an exclusive broadcast would be a failure and immensely detrimental to the kind of progress the league is trying to develop. It is highly unlikely they keep the same one-camera AI system from MLS Next Pro, but those broadcasts have yet to improve confidence in the league's technical capabilities. Apple will likely lend some support, but the decision to have all production run by MLS will be under heavy scrutiny, especially if things go bad.
Other things to watch moving forward
The media deal provides the league and each team more money each year, but it is unclear how that money will be spent or if there are any requirements to do so. Many club owners have shown their preference to hold on to the money their teams earn while letting the on-field product suffer. The streaming package could be the best in the world, but that is not the only thing MLS needs to work on to improve its spot in the US and Canada sports landscapes.
While local broadcasts are guaranteed to be gone, less is known about local talent. Some fanbases are deeply attached to their commentators and are hoping they stay on the call. Apple has announced that viewers can select their club's radio broadcast within the Apple TV platform, but it is unclear if TV announcers will also receive the same treatment and if any supplemental audio will lineup with the broadcast.
On a similar note, Apple and MLS need to hire a lot of on-air talent spots, which could be filled by formal local broadcasters. Successful hires will have a big impact on initial ratings. There are plenty of options, they could try and bring in existing talent like ESPN's Taylor Twellman and Fox's Rob Stone, or they could go with fresh faces.
With a local World Cup in four years - sites will be announced on Thursday this week - it is an exciting time for soccer in North America. The Apple deal adds to that enthusiasm, regardless of how any lingering questions are answered. The deal will hopefully be maximized to its fullest potential, and answers will be here before we know it.