Last month, Apple and Major League Soccer (MLS) announced a ten-year, US$2.5 billion global broadcast partnership. The arrangement isn’t among the most lucrative or high-profile deals in sport, but it could ultimately become one of the most important.
Many within the sports industry had hoped big tech would have become interested in acquiring rights a long time ago but this apparent demand has not materialised. Netflix hasn’t yet moved into sport, Facebook sees itself as a content distribution platform for others, and Google has kept its powder dry. Only Amazon has shown any serious interest, although many of its ventures have been opportunistic.
Amid this backdrop of cautiousness and curiosity, Apple’s sudden interest is a big deal. Here, SportsPro unpicks the specifics of this deal and explains what it means for sport and broadcasting around the world.
What exactly have Apple and MLS agreed?
Apple and MLS have agreed a ten-year global broadcast deal worth US$250 million a season, starting with the 2023 campaign. Every single game from the competition, which will feature 29 teams when St Louis City SC join next year, will be broadcast live on the Apple TV streaming platform via a dedicated MLS subscription service.
Fans will not need to take out an Apple+ subscription to watch matches, but pricing has still yet to be disclosed.
Alongside live games, viewers will also receive a live NFL RedZone-style ‘whiparound show’, full match replays, highlights, analysis, and other original programming. Some MLS matches will be made available at no additional cost to standard Apple TV+ subscribers and some games will be free of charge.
Season ticket holders of any MLS club will get the subscription service at no extra cost, allowing them to follow their team’s away games without the risk of blackout restrictions.
Who will produce the games?
The deal effectively replaces MLS’s previous deals with national broadcasters and regional sports networks (RSNs) who would produce the matches. Apple, which has no desire to get involved with the complex nature of sports production, will not step in and instead MLS will create a centralised broadcasting division.
MLS is understood to be hiring between ten and 14 broadcast teams to produce these matches, possibly with dedicated facilities and studios for pregame, half-time, and post-game programming. The removal of local broadcasts means only a single team of commentators will be used, although viewers will be able to listen to local radio commentaries if they fancy a more partisan view.
The Athletic says all matches will be broadcast in Spanish and a select few, most involving Canadian team CF Montreal, will be available in French.
MLS x @AppleTV is coming in 2023.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) June 14, 2022
What does this mean for Apple?
Apple gains more premium sports content for its subscribers, building on the recent deal it secured with Major League Baseball (MLB).
As the US television market shifts from a cable subscription model towards direct-to-consumer (DTC), sport has become a key battleground, with virtually every single major streaming service investing in rights to attract subscribers and reduce churn.
Apple clearly now sees sport as an effective acquisition tool for Apple TV+, which in turn is used as a way to sell more iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV units and to tie users into its highly integrated ecosystem of software and hardware.
The deal is global, which provides Apple the scale that global streaming platforms prefer, and gives the company a foothold in a rapidly-growing soccer league – especially among younger, more digitally native audiences.
The US$2.5 billion it has spent on MLS isn’t an insignificant amount, but for a company with annual revenues of US$365.8 billion and vast cash reserves, it’s a sum that can be written off as an R&D expense. Apple will now have the opportunity to experiment with technology and marketing for a major sports league, developing a framework that could be adapted for other properties further down the line.
“The message of ‘all in one place’ will resonate strongly with users,” Paolo Pescatore, an analyst with PP Foresight, told SportsPro. “Arguably now is the right time to acquire these assets as soccer continues to grow in the States.”
Apple’s deal with MLS represents its biggest move in sport to date
What does this mean for MLS?
MLS’s previous national television deals with ESPN/ABC, Fox and Univision were worth US$90 million a season, so the annual US$250 million fee is a significant uplift. It sounds even more impressive when you consider that the previous agreement also included the rights to the US men’s and women’s national teams, meaning US Soccer also took a slice. Now that those international rights have been unbundled, the leagues and clubs will take 100 per cent of the revenue.
And while it is true that MLS now has to contend with production costs, it will receive a commission for subscription sales, bringing it closer to the reported US$300 million figure it had hoped to obtain.
In any case, it is a far cry from the early years when MLS didn’t even receive a rights fee from its television partners and comes at a time when domestic viewership has been a little underwhelming.
The decade-long length of the deal also provides a degree of certainty, but it does mean that the league is in no immediate position to capitalise on any explosion of interest that may result from the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which the US is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico.
MLS clearly believes this trade-off is worth it, especially if it has a partner willing to devote significant resources rather than having to compete with other sports for airtime on linear television or prominence on another streaming service. Most matches will now be played in regular Wednesday and Saturday timeslots, which will help build an audience.
Bundling local, national, and international rights into a single package helps simplify the proposition for viewers, including outside the US where the rights have often bounced around different media companies. While MLS still trails major European leagues in terms of popularity and quality, it is improving all the time and matches are played in a favourable time zone.
What about linear coverage and awareness?
Some might be concerned that Apple TV lacks the reach of more established television and streaming platforms, but with many viewers in the US ‘cutting the cord’ this is probably not as much of a problem as it once was. Netflix, and more latterly Peacock, Paramount+ and others, have normalised streaming in the country. This is especially true of the younger fanbase that MLS attracts.
Apple will also presumably promote the league heavily across its platforms, including iOS which has just received a slew of new sports-specific features. Given Apple controls more than half the US smartphone market and offers free trials of Apple TV+ to customers who buy a new phone, a portion of those could be tempted to upgrade to an MLS package.
Two matches per week will be made available for free via the Apple TV app, without the need for a subscription, but the league is reportedly still keen to get some linear coverage – recognising there is a need to preach to the unconverted.
What does this mean for soccer in the US and how does it compare with other sports leagues?
This is a huge vote of confidence in the sport ahead of a home World Cup and is a landmark deal for MLS. Throughout its history, the league’s growth has relied on the success of a series of long-term bets, expanding to become a truly nationwide competition firmly established in the US sporting landscape. The ‘big four’ is now arguably a ‘big five’.
Despite this growth, the value of the deal is still dwarfed by the figures that broadcasters will pay for the other major leagues. The National Football League (NFL) has domestic deals in place worth US$11.3 billion a season for the same duration as MLS’s contract, while MLB, the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL) all command larger fees.
MLS doesn’t even have the most valuable soccer deal in its home country as NBC’s deal with the Premier League is worth US$2.7 billion over a six-year period.
But Apple’s move provides more evidence that soccer is now a hugely important source of content for streaming services, as do ESPN’s arrangements with Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s LaLiga, in addition to Uefa Champions League coverage on Paramount+.
Apple already has a deal to show a small package of MLB games
What will Apple do next?
Apple’s move into sports broadcasting was long expected by many within the industry and no one was under any illusions that it was only going to dip its toe in the water with two MLB games a week. MLS is almost certainly the next step in its journey to becoming a major player in the US market and beyond.
“MLS is a statement of intent by Apple,” added Pescatore. “While it is late to the party, it must now be considered a serious player for sports rights in key markets for its products.”
The NFL is the obvious next step for Apple if it doesn’t want its sports content to be anything more than a novelty, and it is understood to have tabled a bid for the Sunday Ticket package of out-of-market matchups.
Any sports broadcaster in the US that wants to be taken seriously needs the NFL, and the league would surely be happy at bringing a blue-chip name like Apple into its wide portfolio of broadcast partners.
If Apple can secure the rights on a global basis, with the NFL effectively bundling its international Game Pass service into Apple TV’s platform, then it could be a game changer.
Will other major soccer leagues look to go DTC?
There will be plenty of executives at major soccer leagues around the world watching this experiment closely. If Apple TV and MLS can make a success of it, then global streaming platforms could be a viable alternative to the domestic and global pay-TV relationships that have been the pillar of the soccer economy for the past three decades.
Already, some commentators have called on the Premier League to bypass third parties entirely and build its own global platform. The advantages of going DTC are obvious in that greater scale means lower costs and greater reach, while bypassing broadcast partners means cheaper subscriptions and ultimately more revenues.
But the reality is that owning and operating a DTC platform requires technological expertise, marketing nous, and operational costs that sports organisations simply don’t have to deal with right now. It is more likely that the DTC threat will be used as a bargaining chip when the time comes for other soccer leagues to negotiate better terms the next time they tender their rights.
The next big tender to watch is the NBA, which may follow suit by bundling its streaming rights with one of its broadcasters when its rights come up for grabs in 2025.