Photography: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA Today Sports
One wonders if anyone in Major League Soccer had the famous 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial running through their mind when the league signed a $2.5 billion deal to broadcast its games on Apple TV for the next 10 years. Indeed, the image of a sledgehammer hitting a giant TV screen is quite apt to illustrate what the league has done with its new deal.
MLS hasn’t completely turned its back on traditional TV — reports claim the league is still in talks with linear broadcasters to show some games — but there’s no denying the significance of the decision to work with Apple, the partner Don Garber wanted. all the time. “When we started this process, we had a logo on the whiteboard, and that logo was the Apple logo,” the league commissioner said.
Fans will notice the difference. All matches will be played on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Local broadcasts will be a thing of the past. So will blackouts – all matches will be available in all states (and all countries) on Apple TV. Matches will be broadcast in 1080p (many current broadcasts are in 720p and 1080i) and will come with a local radio audio option. In addition, MLS season ticket holders will have free access to the service.
This new deal took years to make. As early as 2019, the league told clubs not to sign local agreements beyond 2022 – the intent behind that instruction is now clear. Garber had initially set March 2022 as the date for the announcement of the new contract. As that date came and went without any news, it was suspected that MLS had not received the offers it had hoped for.
The $250 million a year deal is more lucrative than many expected (the previous deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision was worth $90 million a year). That said, the MLS has signed off its broadcast rights for the next decade for far less than many other leagues get (the Premier League gets $450 million a year from NBC just for its American broadcasting rights). Will MLS still see this deal as good value in 2032?
It also remains to be seen how putting all matches on a streaming service (and behind a paywall – fans will have to pay separately to access MLS’s new streaming vertical through Apple TV) will affect the league’s ratings and overall exposure. But TV has been such a puzzle for the MLS that it’s not surprising, and perhaps even wise, that the league tries to put together a completely different picture for itself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time MLS has partnered with a streaming service. Off-market league matches have been available to watch on ESPN+ since 2018. Prior to that, MLS operated its own centralized streaming service called MLS Live. Garber and others in the MLS were quicker than most to recognize the shift in streaming habits among American sports fans.
Related: MLS Watchability Ranking: Who is the funniest team in the league?
While Apple has a deal with MLB to showcase Friday Night Baseball, its new deal with MLS is the biggest live sports deal the company has ever struck. MLS live games will be an important part of Apple TV’s content strategy. Indeed, Apple may be counting on the benefit of the ‘world cup’ that is slated for 2026, when Canada, Mexico and the US will co-host the tournament. It could also be anticipating Lionel Messi’s arrival in the MLS at some point in the future. Whatever the work behind the equation, Apple clearly believes that MLS will increase the value of its streaming service. That says something about the league’s position on the North American sports scene.
A quick show on Saturday nights will give MLS its own Red Zone. For a league with so many teams (29 of 2023), this will be an effective way to stay in a league that spans two countries. The broadcasts will come with a lot more shoulder programming, something that should help the MLS position itself as the major league it has always aspired to: broadcasts will never again be delayed because of an outclassed college basketball game (as happened in 2021).
There may also be potential for Apple and MLS to work together on supplemental content. If MLS hasn’t already released a Drive To Survive-style docuseries for its new streaming partners, it should. F1’s fortunes in the United States have been transformed by the Netflix show that lets viewers enter behind the curtain. Apple recently produced a docuseries about Magic Johnson, capitalizing on the trend started by The Last Dance. Could something similar be produced about David Beckham’s time at the LA Galaxy or Freddy Adu’s discovery as a 14-year-old pro at DC United?
Some have expressed concern that the MLS could lose casual fans by turning its back on traditional TV, but the league has a younger base of support than most. How many fans were actually attracted to MLS by going through the channels? The modern sports fan is more interested in storytelling and Apple TV should give the MLS a better platform to tell the story of its teams and players.
Most broadcast deals fail to move the needle, and there is no guarantee that this will change much for MLS. But not every broadcast deal has the potential upside of MLS’s new deal with Apple. It could be a landmark moment in MLS history, just as the Premier League’s bold decision to partner with Sky Sports in the early 1990s was in English football history. Another memorable Apple commercial used the slogan “Think Different”. MLS is certainly doing it here.