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Thoughts on Major League Soccer’s new media deal with Apple

The new deal is geared toward the future of sports-watching, but presents some serious questions in the present.

MLS

A week ago, Apple and MLS announced a new television and media rights deal worth around $250 million per season from 2023-2032 that will put all MLS games on a new app exclusively available through Apple TV.

Here are some thoughts on the deal.

Better, more serious television coverage

MLS fans have long been frustrated by the television coverage of MLS matches produced by both local broadcasts on regional networks and national broadcasts on ESPN and Fox Sports.

Most local broadcasts do not feature pre-game, half-time, and post-game shows with expert analysts and personalities as they do in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL for all regular season games. Fortunately, Apple has committed to doing so for all matches in the new TV deal. New and experienced MLS fans will benefit from these shows as analysts generally see the game in a way we can’t as people who haven’t played at the professional level. Interestingly, Apple will be including a “weekly live whip-around show” as part of its package. In a similar way to NFL Network’s “RedZone,” viewers will be able to turn their TV to one channel and relax as the show brings them to and from exciting moments in matches. CBS Sports has had success doing so with its Champions League whip-around show, so it’s good to see MLS take a page out of their book.

Apple’s commitment to broadcasting all matches in Spanish (and at some point in Portuguese) is also immense for MLS’ hopes to attract Latinx viewers to the league. MLS has been experiencing increasing viewership among Spanish-speaking audiences on Univision, and plans to continue to support these viewers in the new deal.

Standardized kickoff times and elimination of blackouts

What allows whip-around shows to work so well are standardized kickoff times like the well-known 1 p.m. eastern, 4 p.m. ET and 8:20 p.m. ET slots used by the NFL. MLS seems to be moving toward a similar system with almost all matches scheduled to be on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the exception of a few matches. As Americans do with the NFL, MLS can now plan their schedules around those time slots and include watching MLS in their “weekly routine.” Knowing exactly when one will be able to flop down in front of the TV to watch soccer each week is a comforting feeling.

The elimination of blackouts and regional sports networks also suggests that MLS believes their fans have an interest in watching all 29 (in 2023) teams as opposed to the one team covered by the regional network. As the MLS becomes a more active player in the global transfer market and as young South and Central American talent continues to arrive, there’s excitement about pretty much every team in the league.

Increased revenue for the league and clubs

The new TV deal is worth more than double the deal that ran through this year. We know that in addition to ticket and merchandise sales, advertising, and transfer fees, television rights deals comprise a large component of league and club revenues. While this dollar number still lags behind other major American sports leagues, it brings the league much closer to its competitors.

The league and clubs will be able to put this money toward the building of new soccer-specific stadiums and the renovation of old ones, increasing the salary cap, and the purchasing of superior talent from the international transfer market. Many fans are hoping for the expansion of the Designated Player Rule. In due time, the quality of play on the field and the league’s overall infrastructure will improve as MLS edges closer to being considered one of the world’s top leagues.

This is a deal for the future. But what are the big drawbacks?

While MLS’ television viewership numbers under the current deal are nothing to write home about, plenty of sports watchers still pay for cable and watch all of their other favorite sports there. This is what I do, for example. In the short term, casual MLS viewers who primarily watch other sports but often flip the channel to MLS because it is included in their cable package might be lost in the transition to the new deal. What I think will become crucial to MLS gaining viewers on Apple TV will be the other shows and sports included on the service. This “bundle effect” will bring in viewers who subscribed to Apple TV+ to watch things other than MLS, but became interested in the league as a result of its inclusion in the service. If Apple is able to purchase the rights of a blockbuster television series, or expand on their current rights to various MLB games (for instance), this would surely help MLS viewership in the near future. In short, the number of people who will subscribe to Apple TV+ for the sole purpose of watching MLS is extremely unclear (Apple TV+ subscribers will get some but not all MLS games while MLS streaming subscribers will get all of the games whether they subscribe to Apple TV+ or not).

The league also left the futures of current local broadcasters unclear. Will some or all of them be hired by Apple or the league to cover games under the new deal? Will they be left unemployed? From a Union perspective, it would be a shame for this season to be the last we hear JP Dellacamera and Danny Higginbotham on the mic. Both are excellent and have appeared nationally on FOX, ESPN, and NBC as a result. I’ve also really enjoyed the work of Callum Williams and Kyndra de St. Aubin for Minnesota United FC.

Commissioner Don Garber is confident that the future of television lies in streaming and that cable is slowly heading to its death bed. “83% of [MLS] fans watch sports on a streaming device or recorded TV in a typical week,” the league said. Garber wants to be an innovator, and go somewhere no other major American sports league has gone. For a young, rapidly-changing league, it makes sense to plan for a future that will look drastically different from today’s world.

As long as MLS is willing to ride out some short-term growing plans, Garber may be hailed as a genius in 10 short years.