by Paul Kennedy
Major League Soccer is headed to Apple TV in 2023.
MLS announced on Tuesday that every MLS match will air on the streaming service, beginning in 2023, as part of a 10-year agreement.
The Athletic and Soccer Business Journal both reported, citing sources, that Apple will pay a minimum guarantee of $250 million a year, or $2.5 billion over the 10 years.
“I’m a huge sports fan, and for the first time ever as a fan, I’ll be able to access everything from a major professional sports league in a single place,” Apple senior vice president of services Eddy Cue said in a media call on Tuesday. “It’s never been done before."
What will be available. MLS has bundled all its soccer properties -- MLS regular season and playoffs, Leagues Cup, MLS Next Pro, MLS Next -- and will make them available globally to all viewers.
The Apple TV deal replaces the existing agreements MLS and its teams have:
1. Agreements the league has with ESPN, Fox and Univision in the United States and TSN, TSN and TVA Sports in Canada for both linear (national broadcasts) and streaming (out-of-market) coverage;
2. Agreements individual U.S. teams have with local stations, regional cable networks or streaming services for in-market coverage; and
3. Agreements the league has with broadcasters around the world.
Along with the end of broadcasts on local stations or regional cable networks, the new agreement also means the end to in-market blackouts that prevented viewers from watching ESPN+ broadcasts of matches aired locally.
How to watch. There will be three ways to access MLS games on Apple TV ...
1. All games will be available via a new (pay) MLS streaming service available exclusively through the Apple TV app (similar to channels and streaming services it now offers);
2. Select games will be available at no additional charge to Apple TV+ subscribers (who currently pay $4.99 a month);
3. A limited number of games will be available for free on the Apple TV app (similar to Apple TV+ Friday Night Baseball with live MLB games now streaming for free every Friday for a limited time).
(Fans who hold full-season ticket packages will have free access to the new MLS streaming service.)
MLS will seek to reach deals with traditional linear partners — most likely, ESPN and Univision — though the games they carry will be available as part of the MLS streaming service on Apple TV.
When to watch. MLS will shift its schedule to air all its games on Wednesday and Saturday nights, barring occasional stadium conflicts or linear broadcasts.
That consistency in scheduling is something MLS has lacked, according to MLS Deputy Commissioner and President of MLS Business Ventures Gary Stevenson.
“When you think about our schedule today, we’ve had," he said, "in this year alone, 63 different start day-start time combinations. And so it’s really hard for our fans to kind of understand when the games are starting, whether they’re a fan going to the stadium or whether they’re a fan watching the broadcast."
What to watch. Apple TV games — streamed in 1080P — will be centrally produced, though a majority of the games will have broadcast crews calling the matches from the stadium. Viewers will have the option to listen to radio broadcasts to hear the "local" call of matches since only one set of commentators will likely be covering games.
Fans can watch broadcasts in English, Spanish and French (in Canada). Other languages will be added down the road, including Portuguese in 2025.
Broadcasts will also include pregame, halftime and postgame shows, while local shoulder programming will also be available. All kinds of other features (studio shows, features) will be available.
Probably the biggest news is that the MLS streaming service on Apple TV will feature a weekly whip-around show, made possible because of all the matches played over a six-hour window on Saturday.
Bottom line. The critical question remains, how much more revenues will be available to be divided among MLS teams for them to spend on players?
MLS teams spend a fraction of what major European clubs spend on players (payroll and transfer fees) because they bring in a fraction of the TV money European clubs earn from league broadcast deals or participation in the highly lucrative UEFA club competitions.
Comparing the old and new MLS media deals is like comparing apples and oranges.
MLS received a reported $90 million a year under the terms of its current eight-year agreement with ESPN, Fox and Univision. Of that $90 million, an estimated $25 million went to U.S. Soccer for its media rights to national team games it bundled with MLS's package sold by SUM. (In 2023, U.S. Soccer will go out on its own, having struck an agreement with Turner Sports.) On top of that were leaguewide broadcast revenues for the sale of international rights and team revenues for the sale of local rights.
All those rights are now bundled into the new Apple TV deal. On top of what MLS gets from Apple TV will be broadcast revenues from its broadcast partners going forward.
On the expense side, MLS will pay production costs for matches shown on Apple TV+, just like teams currently pay to produce local broadcasts now.
Some of the increased revenues will be accounted for in terms of increased spending on players. The terms of a revenue-sharing deal in the CBA between the league and players should kick in, giving players 12.5% of the net media revenue that is greater than the 2022 league media revenue plus $100 million in 2023 and 2024 and 25% of the same additional amount in 2025, 2026 and 2017.
Networks such as ESPN (ESPN+), CBS (Paramount+) and NBC (Peacock) all have robust streaming platforms, but they reportedly weren't interested in doing streaming deals with MLS. ESPN has been a broadcaster since MLS's first season in 1996, but there has been no significant increase in viewership over the eight years of the current deal.
Is there a downside to going all in on streaming? Not if that's where the future is for MLS. And not if it's with Apple.
“We're thinking about what is happening with the transition of sports viewership and fan engagement, going from what has been a traditional cable model over to what has become more of a streaming model,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “Whether it's entertainment or sports, fans are accessing their games in ways that are different than perhaps they did two, five years ago."
He said the change will be even more dramatic in the years to come.
“We are convinced that this is where our fans are going, this is where the business is going, and we have an opportunity to go there perhaps before anybody else does,” Garber added. “And to do it with the company that we believe is going to be the driver and ultimate winner in this global sports streaming space.”