MLS unveiled a legitimately landmark agreement with Apple on Tuesday. For the first time ever, all MLS games — both local and national — will be available through one streaming service without any blackouts. That’s not to say this deal is perfect or without legitimate criticisms, but it does chart a bold path forward for a league that has long struggled to find its footing in the American sports landscape.
Here’s what Sounders fans need to know about this new deal:
How will I be able to watch games?
Let’s get right to the meat of this — you will need to subscribe to the new streaming service through the Apple TV streaming app. That app will carry every game the Sounders play in both MLS and Leagues Cup, as well as select MLS Next Pro and MLS Next games.
Will I still be able to watch local games on Fox 13, Fox13+ or other traditional TV channels?
No. If there’s one glaring downside to this new deal it’s that traditional over-the-air, cable and satellite services are completely cut out from most games.
What about national games?
MLS is apparently still working on a linear TV deal that should put some games on places like ESPN, FS1 and/or Univision, but they won’t be exclusive and it’s unclear how many games will be available that way. The Athletic reported that ESPN is close to a four-year deal that will put 23-25 games on various ESPN channels per year with MLS Cup alternating between them and Apple. That’s about 50% fewer games than they broadcast this year.
What about local announcers?
All streams will come with a drop-down menu that allow you to select which audio feed you want to hear. For instance, if the Sounders keep their current radio team of Keith Costigan, Kasey Keller and Steve Zakuani you’d be able to choose to pair that audio stream with the video stream for every game. There will also be a national feed for every game featuring a team of 10-14 announcer teams.
Will this be any different than watching games on Prime Video now?
A little. The Sounders currently handle production for all their local games. They staff the cameras, direct the broadcast and everything else. If the broadcast wants a specific angle of a specific replay, they can get it. Under this new deal, that will all be handled at a national level. It could be better, it could be worse, but we do know the Sounders’ current broadcast team is more robust than most local broadcasters and it’s not clear what this will look like.
How about picture quality?
The Sounders are one of the only teams who broadcast all games in 1080p, which is about as good as it gets for sports broadcasting. Most other teams broadcast in 1080i or 720p, which are both lower resolutions. MLS execs promised that all the Apple games will be in 1080p, but that’s going to require a lot of infrastructure to be built out and it remains to be seen how quickly that can happen.
Are there going to be pre- and post-game shows?
Yes. Each game will include pre- and postgame shows as well as a halftime show. It’s not immediately clear if this will be sort of like the NFL broadcasts where one studio team is talking about all the games or if they’ll be done by the dedicated radio teams. There’s also going to be a whip-around show that has live highlights of every game. This is all somewhat facilitated by MLS moving to a schedule that will feature almost exclusively Wednesday and Saturday night games that kick off at 7 or 8 PM local time.
How much will this cost?
All Sounders season-ticket holders will get access to this service for free, at least in 2023. It’s not yet clear how much this service will cost for non-STHs or beyond 2023, but it will be an add-on service to the Apple TV streaming app. It seems like a reasonable guess to peg the cost at somewhere between $5-$10 a month.
Please explain this more.
As you may know, Apple already has a streaming service called Apple TV+. That’s where shows like Ted Lasso live. You may already have access without even knowing it! Most people who buy a new Apple product get a year of free service and there are all sorts of ways to package it with other services. Some T-Mobile users, for instance, can also get it for free.
Will I already have access to this new service if I’m an Apple TV+ subscriber?
Not quite. This is a little complicated but bear with me: the Apple TV app is really more of a marketplace where you can buy or rent shows and movies, or even access other streaming apps. Apple TV+ is one of those streaming apps you can access. This new MLS streaming service will just be another channel, effectively. But the plan is to make some games available to all Apple TV+ subscribers and even others available to anyone with the app for free. But if you want all the MLS games, you’ll need to subscribe to the dedicated channel.
How does one access Apple’s streaming service?
At this point, if your device has access to the internet, you probably have access. There are dedicated apps for most set-top boxes like Roku, smart TVs, various video game consoles, iPhones and just about every streaming service. It’s also available through your browser which effectively makes it accessible to anyone with a high-speed internet connection.
How much did Apple pay for this?
The report by Sports Business Journal is that Apple is paying at least $250 million a year for 10 years, and it could bring in even more revenue if the service sells well. That total also doesn’t include any of the money MLS could still collect from traditional national TV rights, although it’s unclear if Apple is re-selling those rights or if MLS can do it separately. The entire package of broadcast deals before this one was about $90 million a year. Even assuming expansion to 30 teams, each MLS team will collect at least twice as much as they did under the old deal.
What are the downsides?
There are definitely a few, so let’s walk through them:
- It’s another streaming service. We all have various tolerances for anything new and there’s no getting around that if you’re not already familiar using the Apple TV ecosystem that this will at least require you to give your information to yet another tech company.
- The cost is unknown. I suspect MLS knows that its primary audience is used to spending anywhere from $0-$5 a month to watch their games, so they’ll need to keep that in mind. Still, there is invariably some portion of their potential audience who simply won’t make the move.
- You need a high-speed internet connection. While high-speed internet is getting significantly more accessible, the reality is that large swaths of the country still don’t have the capacity to stream video to their phones or computers.
- It’s going to be harder to find. While it is probably true that more games will be more available than ever before, you’re going to need to know where to look to find them. That won’t be a huge problem for dedicated fans, but it will make the league out of sight and out of mind for a lot of more casual fans. Most games won’t be on TV, which I’m sure is how a massive swath of fans are first exposed to the league. MLS is going to have work harder than ever to make that first impression. Chances are your local non-soccer bar isn’t going to be be able to put any random game on for you, either.
Is this a good thing?
I think I’d be suspicious of anyone who said the answer is an unequivocal “yes” because there’s still a lot that we don’t know. The biggest change in all of this is that it requires MLS to get into the broadcast production business without much evidence they know what they’re doing. Up until now, MLS has always relied on each team to produce their own broadcast. For some teams who never really put much money or effort into that, this will surely be a massive improvement. For others, like the Sounders, I’m not as sure.
MLS Next Pro was the league’s first attempt to produce their own broadcasts and it’s been, frankly, awful. Obviously, there’s a lot of motivation to improve on that, but there’s a lot of work to be done over the next six months.
As I already alluded to, I also think it’s going to put a lot more pressure on MLS to find new and innovative ways to reach new fans.
That said, there’s a lot to like about this deal, and not just because it’s more motivation for MLS to continue investing in its product. That fans can easily subscribe to one service to watch any game they want is a massive improvement and sets MLS apart from any other league in North America. But 10 years is an eternity, and I think we’re a long way off from knowing how good this is.