Major League Soccer’s 10-year deal with Apple to stream every single game is incredibly exciting. No blackouts. No issues with games being delayed or bumped. And a consistent rhythm of most games on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. Having said all that, there are still some minor MLS Season Pass concerns ahead of a new era for Apple and the league.
MLS’ deal with Apple could be the smartest move the league has ever made. Or it could end up being a colossal mistake. The reality is that no one knows the answer yet. This is brand new territory for both organizations. Never before have we had an entire American sports league available on one streaming platform where every game is shown over an entire decade.
History is about to be made. But what are the concerns that we should all be aware of?
MLS Season Pass biggest concerns
- FOX’s coverage of soccer ranks the worst among viewers
MLS’s partnership with Apple is a massive leap for the league. From the league’s beginning in 1996, MLS has benefitted from many games being available across cable and satellite TV services. And for those games where they were available on streaming only, ESPN+‘s price point that varied from $5 to now $10 wasn’t an obstacle to prevent people from watching.
Now, however, ESPN and Univision are no longer broadcasting MLS games. ESPN+ is out of MLS. And arguably, ESPN and Univision were the two most accessible channels for both English- and Spanish-language sports fans. Instead, MLS sealed a deal with FOX to bring 34 regular season linear games to television. That equals roughly one game per week on television.
Clearly, out of all of the television broadcasters that MLS had in its previous media rights deal, FOX was the weakest. They delivered the lowest average number of television viewers across FS1. Plus their coverage still ranks as the worst among soccer fans.
So with FOX televising select games and MLS Season Pass having a price point of $99 per season (or $14.99 per month), those are two significant roadblocks that MLS faces to make MLS Season Pass a success.
MLS needs FOX more than FOX needs Major League Soccer. With FOX being the only television partner, FOX is the only way to reach both the mainstream and casual sports fans. While FOX wouldn’t like to see it portrayed this way, FOX bears the weight of promoting the league in order to help sell MLS Season Pass subscriptions. Therefore, FOX is indirectly a key element of whether MLS Season Pass is a success, or not.
On the positive side, FOX is broadcasting 15 games during the regular season on the FOX over-the-air network. The reach is impressive. MLS just has to hope that the studio coverage isn’t as bad as FOX’s World Cup coverage, and that it doesn’t turn people away.
2. MLS is missing a big-time lead commentator
For all of the talent that MLS has hired (over 80 in total), there is no one lead commentator who is going to bring an audience on his or her own.
All of the commentators hired are qualified, but they’re not top drawer. None of the commentators are going to make people sign up just to hear their voice.
For instance, if Major League Soccer was to hire a Jon Champion or Peter Drury — two of the best commentators in the world, it would attract viewers. Unfortunately for MLS, Drury isn’t available since he was recently hired by NBC.
But the point remains. The league needs a voice and experience to give the league a global appeal. Champion, as one example, is someone who carries gravitas. He’s a well-known commentator worldwide. Just by having him call games, it makes the games feel more important.
3. MLS Season Pass: Is the price right?
MLS Season Pass is the most expensive streaming service on the market. Yes, there are several different deals available. However, the price point is going to scare away some fans who would normally consider subscribing. And yes, there are roughly 43% of games available for free during the 2023 season. But after the first season is done, those deals are going away.
From 2024 through 2032, MLS is going to sell MLS Season Pass on the product alone. At $99 per year or $14.99 per month, consumers have to pay to make it a success.
It can be argued that the value-add of what MLS Season Pass offers is commensurate to the pricing. But until it proves otherwise, the price tag is still a concern for a lot of fans.
Major League Soccer needs FOX Sports to excite television viewers in the hopes that they’ll also subscribe to the Apple service. In the end, MLS needs FOX more than FOX needs Major League Soccer. Hopefully, FOX Sports will raise the bar on their coverage, and give soccer fans a reason to get MLS Season Pass.
4. The Android enigma
I’ve heard from so many Apple enthusiasts who dismiss any of the concerns that Android phone users have about MLS Season Pass. But seriously, unless you have an Android phone and you deal with trying to watch Apple TV content on an Android phone, may I ask that you “zip it” (in the politest way possible)?
It appears unlikely that Apple is going to create an Apple TV app for Android phones so soccer fans can watch MLS Season Pass in an app. That much is clear. Android users can still watch on other devices (Roku, Amazon Fire, etc) as well as via a browser.
But despite the workarounds to make games available, there’s still no denying that Android owners face more of a challenge to watch MLS Season Pass.
But how concerned should MLS be, if at all, about Android usage?
As of press time, Android accounts for about 45 percent of the mobile operating system market in the United States, while iOS accounts for around 55 percent. Of more importance is that Android has a market share of 72% among the Latino community in the United States.
Therefore, given that the Hispanic population continues to grow and that audience skews more to streaming, it’s imperative that Apple addresses the concerns of Android users.
5. Individual clubs risk making MLS and Apple look bad
One of the unique aspects of MLS Season Pass is that it gives each individual club a home within the app to generate original content. Some clubs have already taken advantage of this in a positive way, while others are slow to take the initiative.
So much of the success of MLS Season Pass is dependent on the job that each franchise does to create content. So, the very first thing I did when using MLS Season Pass was to go to my team Inter Miami.
Maybe that was a bad decision because the first video I watched, one of the player profiles, had the word “Forward” spelled incorrectly. So I watched the next Inter Miami player profile for a different player. And guess what? The second video had “Forward” spelled incorrectly in big giant letters.
Inter Miami, just as one example, is letting MLS Season Pass down. There is no “Ritual” episode for Inter Miami. And there isn’t a “Club Profile” video. As of press time, only one other team doesn’t have a video of their own.
Therefore, it’s vital that every MLS franchise pulls its weight for MLS Season Pass to be successful.
6. Leaving the Spanish-language audience out in the cold on TV
There’s no doubt that MLS is all-in on MLS Season Pass in both English- and Spanish-language. However, with MLS not being on Spanish-language television this season, this is a huge loss for the league.
How big of a problem could this be for MLS Season Pass? Apple and MLS have hired some major names for its Spanish-language coverage. But that isn’t the issue.
How MLS encourages Spanish-language viewers to adopt MLS Season Pass is key. Hopefully the league advertises on Univision to get in front of those viewers, to encourage them to make the leap.
Back to MLS Season Pass, Spanish-language viewers may feel a little left out too. None of the MLS 360 broadcasts are in Spanish-language. Neither is the home radio broadcasts. Both MLS 360 and home radio broadcasts are in English-language.
7. Where are the new fans coming from?
A major disadvantage of MLS Season Pass is that it’s, as I’ve described before, a box within a box. What I mean by that is that if you want to have access to all the games, you need the Apple TV app. After getting that (or logging in to the Apple TV website), you can then need to subscribe to MLS Season Pass.
It’s not like Peacock or Paramount+ where you get news, movies or series included. With MLS Season Pass, that’s what you get and nothing more or less.
So, what happens if MLS has a stellar 2023 season but you’re not watching FOX’s 15-games a season? More specifically, if a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Sure, within the MLS Season Pass app, those headline stories are going to be heard loud and clear. Apple is going to leverage its marketing push to tell the stories to its Apple ecosystem.
But if you’re not in the Apple ecosystem and you’re not watching FOX, are you going to hear about MLS?
Where are these new fans going to come from if they don’t own Apple devices?
Even more worryingly, in the past, we said that if the MLS product on the field was compelling, people would watch. If it wasn’t, they didn’t. That was at a time when MLS was plastered across ABC, FOX, ESPN, Univision, etc. But now, that reach on television is gone except for FOX.
For everything that is wonderful about MLS Season Pass (and it has been very well thought out and built), Major League Soccer faces a challenge that is bigger than anyone before it. And that is relevance.
Can the league compete when it is exclusively available on streaming except for a small number of games on television? Even though MLS Season Pass is offering many games for free, it’s still not as easy as switching on a TV and going to your favorite sports channel to watch your game.
If MLS is out of sight (to most sports fans due to Apple TV), is it out of mind?
MLS is in the middle of its biggest transition in the 27-year history of the league. It’s both exciting and scary at the same time.
These next 10 years are going to be a fascinating ride.
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