EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ll be updating this story whenever new details emerge. We first updated it on Oct. 27 when The Athletic published a rather detailed story about the state of the new AppleTV-MLS deal. We then updated it again on Nov. 16 when pricing was officially announced. It was again updated on Dec. 13 when the linear TV deal was announced. The original story was published on June 14.
MLS and Apple have agreed to a legitimately landmark streaming deal. For the first time ever, all MLS and Leagues Cup 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. There will also be a live “whip-around” show for every matchday, similar to the NFL’s “Redzone.”
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.
Oct. 28 Update: There’s still no deal in place but it sounds like we’re still heading in the same direction. The most notable difference is the plan to apparently put as many as 6 of 14 games every week in front of the paywall on AppleTV. That would be a pretty dramatic improvement over the status quo.
Dec. 13 Update: Fox Sports will be the exclusive U.S. TV partner for regular-season and playoff games in both English and Spanish, while Univision will only carry about two dozen Leagues Cup games through 2026 at least. The 34 regular-season games will be basically split between FS1 and Fox. They’ll also carry eight playoff games, including MLS Cup. Fox Deportes will carry the same games in Spanish.
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 theoretically 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.
Oct. 28 Update: Shockingly, there still haven’t been any hires and that has left the local radio feeds in limbo as well. It sounds like in Year 1 we may only have “local” radio feeds for home teams, and the broadcasts will feature 12-14 teams of announcers who call the games on-site. All 200-plus local broadcasters have apparently been interviewed for these positions and it sounds like some of the big national voices like Taylor Twellman and Herculez Gomez are being considered as well.
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.
Oct. 28 Update: While most broadcasts apparently feature seven cameras, the plan is for all broadcasts to eventually have as many as 15-20. Sounds like this might not happen in Year 1, though.
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.
Oct. 28 Update: Similar to the camera expansion, this bold promise is going to be really hard to pull off in Year 1. But they’re actually planning to eventually broadcast in 4k, which would be pretty awesome ... if they can do it.
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.
Oct. 28 Update: All still vaguely part of the plan, but it sounds like they recognize there will need to be Sunday games as well as other games that need to kickoff outside those windows.
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.
Oct. 28 Update: Still no updates on pricing but it does sound like a not-insignificant number of games will be free to everyone.
Nov. 16 Update: Starting on Feb. 1, existing AppleTV+ subscribers can get the service for $79 a year or $12.99 a month. Those without a subscription to AppleTV+ will need to pay $99 a year or $14.99 a month. Full season-ticket holders will also get a free MLS Season Pass account.
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 services 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 definitely a barrier. Even at the discounted price of $79 a year, that works out to be about $8 a month during the season. Hard to imagine a lot of casuals paying that.
- 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 able to put any random game on for you, either.
- Oct. 28 Update: It’s now becoming apparent that possibly the biggest downside is how far behind everyone is in getting this up and running. As of Oct. 28, they still haven’t hired an executive producer, let alone any of the talent or technical staff they’ll need to make this work. The service is supposed to go online in like four months! There are hundreds of people to hire, equipment to secure and expertise to capture. We should absolutely expect some significant hiccups once this starts.
- Dec. 13 Update: While MLS did confirm that there will be games outside of MLS Season Pass available to AppleTV+ subscribers, there was no word on whether or not some games will be available outside of that paywall. This could dramatically limit the accessibility of games.
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 its 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 its own broadcasts and it has 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.
Oct. 28 Update: The more information that comes out about this, the better it looks. Regardless of what happens on the traditional TV channels, more games will be more widely available, albeit potentially harder to find. Once they get ramped up, the games should look better too. I’m very optimistic that by 2024, we’re going to think this was a very smart move.
Nov. 16 Update: Now that we have pricing, it’s now up to Apple and MLS to demonstrate value. Done right and executed well, I think this could end up being a very good deal. But if they stumble out of the blocks, it could set this deal — and the league — back significantly.
Dec. 13 Update: Losing ESPN and Univision is a pretty massive hit in terms of visibility. Games on those channels drew about double the audience as Fox, but since these games are likely to all be produced centrally there at least won’t be a huge dropoff in quality. The other problem is that previous reporting had suggested that many games would be available through AppleTV without any subscription, but today’s announcement made no mention of that possibility.