Three Quick Thoughts About the Apple TV-MLS Deal

The sports TV landscape – at least for United States sports leagues – has never seen a deal like this.

A soccer pitch shown with Apple and MLS logos inside the midfield circle.
Image via Apple's press release.

The sports TV landscape – at least for United States sports leagues – has never seen a deal like this. MLS signed a deal – valued at $2.5 billion over 10 years according to the apolitical folks at The Athletic – with Apple to become the sole digital partner worldwide to air every single soccer match (including some games outside of the MLS calendar, like the Leagues Cup).

I have three thoughts to share about the deal. So let's get to it.

This is good for the league and Apple. MLS benefits in that its current national TV partners have almost completely abandoned the league. One network can't be bothered to send its commentary teams to stadiums (the new MLS deal says commentary teams will be on-site for "most" games), the other english language partner has seen an incredibly steep decline in picture quality over the years.

But beyond that, MLS will become a fixture in a phone app built into roughly half of all phones out there. By being on that platform, MLS content will at least be seen (as in glanced at in passing to get to a new episode of Severance or something) by billions of people. That's an opportunity to grow the league. And Apple has an opportunity to lean into sports, which has been a growing concern for it since nabbing MLB rights. Apple is the all but likely next partner for the NFL's Sunday Ticket out-of-market streaming service (it would be interesting if Apple got the NFL and its TV partners to allow in-market streaming, but for some reason I'm doubtful).

It could be bad, at least to start. Here's why: one aspect of this deal that is crucial is that Apple TV is not handling the production; that falls completely to the league. The league will have to build production operations in the next nine months. That presents a clear unknown on how broadcasts will look. What if they look like garbage, what if you click on a Rapids-Sounders match and the match shown is a Miami-Nashville match? Glitches and mistakes could get people turning away quickly. The on-ramp is steep.

TV networks are always trying to play nice with leagues, but they're also not afraid to be critical of the leagues they cover. But it's interesting to think that MLS employees or contractors will make up commentary teams. Can a league broadcast team be critical in the same way an ESPN commentator would be? That's a question worth exploring and watching get answered over the early stretch of the deal.

Local commentary feeds, taken from the radio broadcasts, will be available on the platform. That rules, in my opinion. If it works and is not hampered by audio delays. But it is sad to see the end of the local broadcast, which had its pluses.

Oh, and another thing, and very well done on the league and Apple's part is that English and Spanish broadcasts will be available for every single game, and Portuguese is coming in year three of the deal.

The paywall stuff seems ill-considered at the outset. The MLS package (I'm calling it MLS+ because it would be hilarious, especially given what I'm about to say) will live on Apple TV's platform. It'll be priced as its own thing, like an Apple TV channel within the app. Apple TV+ is not required for MLS+. Apple TV+ will air some MLS matches behind the Apple TV+ paywall (but still available on MLS+! Easy!). Okay and also Apple TV will just air some taster MLS matches outside both the Apple TV+ and MLS+ paywalls. And to throw some chaos into the mix, MLS's to-be-announced (but let's just call it ESPN) TV partner will continue to get a share of national broadcasts, but (and this is truly the unprecedented and almost incomprehensible part of it all) it will not be blacked out on MLS+.

If you followed that, I'm bewildered by and excited for you. MLS is a niche concern and probably shouldn't factor into everybody's Apple TV+ plan, but it is really confusing. It'll need some clarity as it goes live (plus a generous free-trial period). One extremely good decision on the league's part that will instantly generate goodwill among diehard fans? The decision to bundle in an MLS+ subscription with full season-ticket packages.

What This All Means

It's really hard to say! Sorry to get your hopes up.

But to take a crack at it: MLS is taking a swing for the fences. Wait. Bad analogy. It's going for goal from midfield. There we go. It's a bold bet to centralize TV production and go all-digital. No major domestic US league has done it yet. It can be a trailblazer, but first, it has to deliver a worthy product. And that's not just a broadcast that looks good, either. MLS needs to be a more compelling product week in, and week out. Having a whiparound feed for some matchnights (yeah, almost every game will be at night now) is a good start, but those matches need to have world-class talent. That's the intractable problem with the league in its current form; it develops great players, but has a hard time attracting and retaining that talent. Changing some of the rules around signing international players would be a start.

The TV deal won't be revolutionary in helping teams pay for top talent, but it should help MLS in attracting casual fans. And fans will benefit in having one destination to watch the sport they love.

Thanks for reading. Go Revs.