MLS becomes first sports league to go full streaming

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Photo: AP

Well, someone was going to do it.

Other leagues have dipped a toe (dip that toe, dude), such as MLB’s Friday night odds-fest interrupted by occasional baseball on Apple, or the NHL’s exclusive game on ESPN+ and Hulu this season. There’s the NFL putting Troy Aikman’s weary gape on Thursday nights on Amazon coming. But no one’s gone whole hog, until MLS and Apple announced today that starting next spring, America’s confusing but adorable soccer league will put every game on its schedule on Apple TV. That also includes the Leagues Cup with Liga MX that begins next year, which execs hope will be the main draw for Apple.

First, the filthy lucre. MLS will get $250 million a year from Apple for the rights to every game. That’s a pretty serious bump from its current $90 million per season from the stew of ESPN, Fox, and Univision. It’s still far off what even the NHL gets ($625 million combined per year from Turner and ESPN) but it’s still up the hill from where they were.

Though if you’re expecting this to boost the salary caps and salaries of MLS rosters and maybe bring in a few more names from Europe, just slow your roll there, skippy. MLS is opting for a more NFL-like style of coverage, i.e. no local broadcast teams. Which means they’re moving all the production for every MLS game and Leagues Cup game in-house, which means setting up their own production company, which is going to be something of an undertaking. How much of this extra $160 million per season actually gets to teams, we’ll have to see. But that’s going to take more than the change that falls onto the floor after the transaction.

That will rankle some MLS fans, who have come to like the broadcast teams associated with their home club and presentation style. The other annoyance that MLS fans may find will come whenever Apple announces what this special subscription on their service will cost. Some games will just appear on Apple TV, like the Friday night MLB games do now, but the overwhelming majority are going to require a subscription within the Apple TV app. At the moment, MLS fans can get most out-of-market games on ESPN+ for no additional cost. And soccer fans are likely to already have ESPN+ because that’s where the Bundesliga and La Liga live, as well as the cup competitions in England. There’s also the bundling with Hulu and Disney, which people want. Apple has none of this, and fans aren’t going to be thrilled about going from paying a pittance for ESPN+ to whatever ransom Apple is going to ask (and you can be sure it’ll be more than a six-pack per month). Hawking their Ted Lasso cred isn’t going to be enough.

MLS has also stretched to make it clear that whatever the subscription package is, it’ll come free for season ticket holders. Which sounds nice on the surface, except MLS also announced that starting next season, they’re going to adjust the schedule so that almost every game takes place on Saturday nights, with some Wednesday nights sprinkled in. This will allow MLS to produce a Red Zone like show on those nights, dancing through every event of every MLS game, and that kind of thing found an audience on CBS this past season with their Golazo! show during the Champions League, Europa League, and Europa Conference. It makes things look more like the NFL too, which is every league’s dream, with the regimented start times for games across the country. However, it doesn’t do a season ticket holder much good to have free access to Apple’s MLS Channel when, y’know, they’re going to be at their local team’s game half the time while every other game is going on.

The kicker here is that the $250 million per season figure is a base. It could rise, depending on how many subscribers MLS and Apple can reel in for this. MLS is counting on its younger fanbase, one accustomed to going outside the traditional channels for its sports coverage, flocking toward the new app/subscription. Still, MLS’s TV ratings (where it’s still much easier to get to on ESPN and Fox) have been outhouse-adjacent, so where they get the confidence that more people will sign up to pay more for a product that is still lesser than the leagues fans watch on Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons is something of a mystery. We should all have such bravado. There have been no reports on what exactly the subscriptions requirements are that would boost the amount MLS receives from this deal.

While MLS and commissioner Don Garber will trumpet this as landmark, it wasn’t as if the league was spoiled for choice. While ESPN and Fox and Univision are still in discussion to get some MLS games that will also be on Apple, none of them were beating down Garber’s door to renew their deal, given those ratings. In that sense, securing $2.5 billion over the next 10 years, at least, could be seen as something of a coup.

If indeed the league will benefit even more from this deal (if subscriptions on Apple are above expectations or whatever the parameters are), then it will be under serious pressure to put out a product that people want to pay for (or Apple to offer it as a reasonable price, but wouldn’t hop on one foot while waiting for that to happen). But that could go both ways. Ideally, MLS would loosen their byzantine roster and salary cap rules to allow more teams to spend their money as they see fit and create more teams that stand out from one another. For all we know, MLS could get even more gimmicky, though that hasn’t really been Garber’s style since he took over.

The Leagues Cup is the real wildcard here, as it’s unlikely that MLS will make drastic rules changes that will liven up the regular season too much (14 playoff teams can make the season from July on something of a procession). When paired up with Liga MX, still the most watched league in the US, the hope is that eyes that will make watching Club America or Cruz Azul appointment TV will be drawn to stick with MLS, too, after seeing them on the same field. However, Liga MX fans are used to getting their coverage over-the-air on Univision or Telemundo, and they may be just as not inclined as others to sign up for a service to watch teams they don’t care about in a tournament that for Liga MX teams might not amount to much more than a preseason warmup. It’s hardly a guarantee.

Still, MLS wasn’t really going to get anywhere through traditional avenues, and to grow into something more it has to be progressive and take some risks. This is certainly one, though it comes with the nice safety net of a quarter billion bucks every season. But if they don’t nail the production, if the product on the field isn’t getting better, then this could result in the league being even more out of view of the mainstream, tucked away in some corner of someone’s Roku or Firestick. The money’s nice, the risk-taking admirable, but they’ve got more flaming hoops to negotiate before this is a success.