One of the words that keeps on coming up about the Apple MLS deal is groundbreaking. No doubt, most of the press coverage about Major League Soccer’s media rights deal with Apple has been positive. And so it should be. Apple is one of the leading brands in the world. At the same time, MLS continues to grow in size. In the same manner, the league has aspirations of competing with the top divisions in the world.
MLS is currently riding the wave of being mentioned in the same breath as Apple. It won’t last forever, though. There are many tough questions to resolve. In particular, they include how MLS produces games in 2023. But ultimately, the multi-million dollar question is this: How much is the MLS streaming service on Apple TV going to cost?
For a fanbase that has become comfortable with an ESPN+ $6.99/month price point that includes more than 2,500 soccer games (alone) per year, what is the magic price for MLS on Apple TV going to be?
An answer won’t be forthcoming for a few months. However, we could look to Major League Baseball. MLB charges $139.99 per season, or a single-team subscription for $119.99. But really, even the MLB.TV pricing isn’t an apples to apples comparison. After all, MLB.TV only includes out-of-market games.
In a MLS streaming service on Apple TV that promises more than 900 games per year, what is a fair price that is agreeable to the consumer? At the same time, it needs to be a price that satisfies the investment that Apple and MLS are putting into the product. Striking that balance is key to future success for the customer, Apple and MLS.
Why this Apple groundbreaking MLS deal is a game changer
There’s no doubt that the media rights deal between Apple and MLS is groundbreaking. First, it’s a global deal for a sports league. Anyone worldwide can subscribe via Apple TV and watch every single game. No doubt other sports leagues around the world are watching how this partnership between Apple and MLS unfolds. Secondly, this Apple-MLS deal may end up being the blueprint for what other sports leagues use. Is the future of sports broadcasting not controlled by sports networks? Is it, in fact, the tech giants who are the sports broadcasters of the future?
Other than pricing, another obstacle MLS needs to overcome is the quality of the broadcast. Hopefully, Apple can take a key role in this regard. Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in MLS producing its own content. For the successful 2020 MLS Is Back tournament, MLS and ESPN worked together to pull off a broadcasting miracle. However, it was ESPN that played the lead role in making it possible.
The issue that’s going to make or break MLS on Apple TV
Back to the issue of dollars and cents, the price point for MLS on Apple TV is either going to make or break the service. If MLS and Apple start with pricing that’s too expensive, fans will seek illegal means to watch games.
What Apple has done with Friday Night Major League Baseball is a smart move that MLS should follow. For the first twelve weeks of the service, the games are streaming for free in the Apple TV app. That gives fans a chance to do a deep-dive to see what the experience is like. It’s also a test of how well the production and coverage is. For MLS and Apple in the first weeks of the 2023 season, this is where the league needs to shine — both on the field and in the user experience on the Apple TV app.
Get it wrong, or introduce a price that is too exorbitant, and the whole experience can come crashing down. But no matter how good MLS on Apple TV looks, the biggest factor is price.
Pricing options for MLS fans
If Apple and MLS employ a model similar to MLB.TV, fans should get to choose to subscribe for the season, per game, per month or per team.
Inherent in this, though, are three major issues that the league needs to overcome. First, the vast majority of MLS viewers are only interested in watching their team. For years, MLS TV ratings have proven that the league isn’t one that generates much interest nationally. Fans don’t tend to tune in to watch all teams. They have their favorite, and that’s the team they focus on.
Second, for those fans who are casual viewers to the league, they know that the regular season is rather meaningless. The race to make the playoffs usually doesn’t get started until July or August. As a result, fans can ignore the league after the opening weekend of fixtures and resume viewing in the heat of summer without having missed much.
Third and finally, there isn’t much to entice new fans to get interested in the league. As it stands, even right now when there’s no European soccer being played, there aren’t any major storylines that are captivating the soccer audience. And this is at a time when MLS faces no competition. Imagine how MLS will do when the major European leagues start up again in six weeks.
MLS may be the first of many soccer acquisitions
By itself, MLS won’t be the rights package that get large numbers of soccer fans to subscribe to Apple TV. However, in combination with MLB, NFL Sunday Ticket and perhaps another upcoming soccer property (Serie A and UEFA Champions League for 2024/25 and beyond, perhaps?), Apple TV becomes a stronger, soccer player.
Major League Soccer and Apple have a 10-year partnership to maximize the revenue and growth.
“This is a minimum guarantee. It’s not a rights fee,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said about the deal. “So if we exceed the minimum guarantee, then we share in the upside in that guarantee.”
Garber is correct. If anything, the Apple-MLS media partnership is a distribution deal, not a rights fee.
At the same time, this deal is a risk for both MLS and Apple. Less so Apple given their enormous financial resources. But more so for MLS who risk losing part of their current audience who may not transition to the new service. According to the latest report by Statista, Android smartphones make up 49% of the install-base in the United States. Yes, Android users can watch games on Apple TV via a web browser or app. But, this takes time and consumer education to overcome the perception that Apple TV is only for users in the Apple ecosystem.
Questions remain about the Apple-MLS media rights deal
Still, questions persist about the MLS deal with Apple. Answers will be forthcoming in the coming months. In the meantime, consider these questions:
Will the pricing be affordable for soccer fans who have little to no interest in watching other teams in the league? Who is the target audience for the MLS streaming service outside of the current fanbase? And will MLS’ own fans, who aren’t season ticket holders, sign up?
Just as the MLS regular season can feel long and drawn out, it’s going to be a while before these questions can be answered. The sooner MLS rips off the band-aid and reveals the pricing, the sooner everyone can get its head around what 2023 may look like.
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