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Success of Apple’s groundbreaking MLS deal hinges on pricing

Apple groundbreaking MLS deal

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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  1. Donald Lee

    September 29, 2022 at 11:02 pm

    “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.”

    When I read these two sentences I realized this article is unimportant, written without any real knowledge of MLS.

  2. Roberto

    June 25, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    Wonder if Gareth Bale move to LAFC will help MLS rating?

    • Roberto

      June 25, 2022 at 2:53 pm

      And what does it mean for Carlos Vela?

    • Ra

      June 25, 2022 at 3:21 pm

      I don’t follow either of them; didn’t even know that Bale had retired. 😀

      • Mercator

        June 25, 2022 at 7:20 pm

        The crazy thing is he is probably going to get competition and minutes before the World Cup, it’s probably the least RETIREMENT move of any known European name who has come to the MLS. Insane is coming in from Napoli, Chillini from Juve and Herrera from Atletico to join in some decent sized markets. I think MLS will certainly get some bump.

        Garber should be begging those clowns in New York and Miami to put some of their equity in the team on the table to get Ronaldo and Messi. The US is very attractive for rich players, and LAFC probably got this deal (not a DP deal) in large part because Bale just likes Los Angeles. Messi loves Miami.

        • Ra

          June 25, 2022 at 9:37 pm

          Did Apple also get the rights to their weekly bingo?

    • Buckles

      June 26, 2022 at 6:28 am

      Has to help. Bale can still play. Insigne will do well for Toronto. I’m not so sure about Chiellini at 37. MLS is not as easy a league as people think. I think that’s why a lot of players wait to come here. They are worried that they won’t do as well as people perceive they will. So they wait until they are much older so that they can fall back on that excuse when they don’t perform well.
      At this point in their careers, I don’t think Messi or Ronaldo would do that well in MLS. once you take away the top spending teams in the top leagues in Europe, the soccer isn’t that much different around the world.

  3. Ra

    June 25, 2022 at 8:42 am

    The best place to watch soccer in the world —

  4. Dennis

    June 25, 2022 at 7:30 am

    Am I going to have to subscribe to Apple monthly & buy the MLS package on top of that.

    • Christopher Harris

      June 25, 2022 at 9:00 am

      No, you can subscribe to the MLS streaming service through the Apple TV app without having to subscribe to Apple TV+

  5. jstrummer

    June 24, 2022 at 8:42 pm

    Consider myself a big MLS fan. With that said, not very happy with having to add another streaming service, especially one with only one soccer league. Odds are they’ll charge more than I’ll want to pay and I’ll move on. Agree that price is critical to success of this venture.

  6. Michal

    June 24, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    I only watch the Chicago fire, and we suck. No reason to get apple, if that’s the only soccer property they have. Guess I’ll just watch more Usl.

    • Kariim

      June 29, 2022 at 9:05 pm

      I agree Micah, I’m a USL fan as well

  7. Roberto

    June 24, 2022 at 11:45 am

    I have a question Chris, you say, “the regular season is rather meaningless”, because of the playoff setup. So, why aren’t the other leagues first half of their seasons, “meaningless”? You all get excited about who goes up and who goes down and that is not apparent until the last month or so. Why is it only the MLS’s first month is meaningless?

    • Christopher Harris

      June 24, 2022 at 11:51 am

      It’s the first four months of a MLS season that are rather meaningless, not just the first month. The opening weekend of MLS is always fun to see what the new stadium looks like for the expansion team.

      In other leagues around the world, every game matters. A string of wins or defeats at any point in the season could propel a team up the table, or plummet them near the bottom. Likewise, a win for a Liverpool over a Manchester City earlier in the season could end up being the deciding factor whether the team wins the title in the end. Then, as the season nears its end, the thrill of promotion, relegation and battling for European places builds up to the final day of the season.

      It’s a drama that we’re hooked on from the opening day to the final day of the season.

      • Rob

        June 24, 2022 at 2:39 pm

        That doesn’t make a ton of sense. If a string of wins or losses at any point in the season can propel a team up or down the table in Europe, I’m not sure how that is any different than under a playoff system (whether in MLS or in the other American sports). The European places are essentially the playoff places in the American sporting realm. There are plenty of games that don’t matter in Europe – they simply tend to be between or involving mid-table teams that aren’t realistically threatened with relegation and won’t realistically compete for the European places. The title race is essentially over before the season begins – will there even be a third team besides Liverpool or Manchester City to get within 20 points of the top?

        It’s fine that you prefer the European system to the American system. But trying to make it out as anything more than a matter of taste under the guise of fact is a bit disingenuous.

        • Ra

          June 24, 2022 at 3:05 pm

          The thing is – if a solid mid-table team keeps losing in a tournament with Rel, they will end up relegated. If this happen in the middle of the season, you will get lots of drama in the end, and possible the opportunity to play vs less capable adversaries.
          For example, in Brazil there are now 5 solid mid- to upper-table teams that are now in the second division (Serie B): Gremio (2017 Libertadores winner), Cruzeiro (2018 Brazilian Cup winner), Vasco, Bahia, Sport.
          You would argue the same when they lost mid-season games, but yes, it was of consequence, as it later showed.

      • Every Game Matters

        June 24, 2022 at 7:39 pm

        Yea every game matters for a team in the Premier League outside of the top 6. Lmao just every game matters in Bundesliga for any team that is Bayern Munich. Don’t even get me started on La Liga 😂

      • MLS Football Fan

        June 25, 2022 at 2:10 am

        @Roberto, Great inquisitive and reasonable question towards Christopher Harris

        @Christopher Harris- Your reasoning sounds more biased than anything else. Each football league , or sports league, has their own regular season. The season will be as important as the fan is committed to the sport/league. The Playoff is just icing on the cake to spice thing up for a championship run. In the Premier League or any other European football league, whenever a champion is determined early on March or April, then basically the fun is over because except for goes to the champions league, The Europa or Conference league berths is more like a participation medal. As far as the relegation goes, who stays or who goes, those teams normally don’t bring anything exciting in the end.

    • dave

      June 25, 2022 at 10:21 am

      @Roberto, great question on a frequent topic of discussion among sports fans. While the answer largely boils down to personal preference, there are themes:
      * To a subset of people, every game matters – devoted fans, gamblers, fantasy players, etc.
      * In general, the longer the regular season, the less meaningful any given game
      * In general, the more expansive and wide-open the playoffs, the less meaningful any given regular season game
      Meaningless games are a frequently discussed challenge for MLB, NHL, and NBA. The NFL has an expansive playoff but a shorter regular season. EPL has a medium-long regular season but no playoff. Liga MX has expansive playoffs but with NFL-length split seasons. Etc.
      MLS has a medium-long regular season and an expansive playoff. I typically ignore most of the regular season in sports with similar formats (e.g., I am glued to the Stanley Cup Finals but maybe watched 5 regular season NHL games). But every fan sees it differently

  8. SteveK

    June 24, 2022 at 10:14 am

    This comment is interesting Christopher:

    “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.”

    in that the answer will reveal just how much of a partnership this relationship between MLS and Apple really is. By that I mean what you suggested is too complicated, there’s way too much choice, and it’s not the way Apple really likes doing things. If it is a real partnership Apple will urge a reasonable monthly subscription that is very easy to sign up to and also very easy to unsubscribe from. Just like every other Apple subscription. No personal data will be shared with MLS, just anonymous aggregated data, i.e. number of monthly subscriptions at x price. And then Apple would encourage a yearly subscription at some sort of discount off the monthly price and that’s it, no per team anything and certainly no per game anything.

    • JP

      June 24, 2022 at 10:33 am

      MLB.TV is so convoluted because of the RSN’s and national TV deals. Singe team plan only available if out of the local blackout area. Not all games included (national TV games), etc. With Apple having rights to everything they cannot mess this up and make it confusing. I agree, one plan, one price (or discount for yearly), and move on.

    • dave

      June 24, 2022 at 2:23 pm

      @SteveK, great points. Apple’s core value proposition includes simplicity and privacy. I believe a fair bit of Apple’s significant price premium is driven by that

    • Mercator

      June 24, 2022 at 5:04 pm

      I think this is right, there is no way they offer teams or individual game packages, it will be a flat monthly/annual fee and it will be easy to subscribe and unsubscribe through apple. I think they will share a lot more data though. If you look at the Apple TV app on the App store, for example, it collects a ton of information linked to your identity (contact info, financial info, search and purchase history, usage data, user/device info etc.) I don’t think the MLS subscription would be much different and if I were MLS I would insist on getting this sort of data.

      I actually don’t think Apple is going to do that much outside of the platform. With free games on Apple TV and Apple TV+, and a limited number of match windows, the free games will basically become the new national broadcasts, and there will probably be a free “national” game every weds and sat. The rest of the games are “local” and come with the MLS subscription. I don’t think Apple is going to deal with the subscription much at all – I bet MLS sets the price point, MLS keeps the revenue above a certain amount, and we know MLS will have to produce all the games. Apple is just putting in the $250 million for a couple of games a week and the chance to show the NBA that this business model can work.

      • SteveK

        June 25, 2022 at 11:28 am

        MLS can insist all they want Mercator but again, that is not how Apple rolls…as long as Apple handles subscription processing Apple they won’t share any personal or analytics data with MLS they will only aggregate data for things like device type, platform, region et al and then only share that with MLS if you, the subscriber, opt into that…they certainly won’t allow MLS to identify or email anyone individually though you may be given the opportunity to opt in and share all this with MLS but I doubt even this because if you subscribe you are already getting all the MLS can offer. There’s no add-on MLS can offer to entice an Apple TV user to share anything about themselves, in essence to become the product.

        • Mercator

          June 25, 2022 at 11:50 am

          I don’t think so – the MLS subscription will be separate and there is no reason Apple would restrict them from collecting the same sort of data almost every other streaming app collects. When you download ESPN+ or Paramount+ in the App Store, you are consenting to share all of this data already. Like almost every other streaming app in the App Store, when you sign up for the MLS subscription you will no doubt be consenting to share a wide array of data with Apple TV and with MLS – there will be no opt out just like there is no opt out for Apple TV, ESPN+, Paramount or any other app. This is one of the biggest benefits of streaming – you can now collect granular data on viewers in a way you can’t on TV. Apple has no reason to restrict – it will help MLS drive subscribers and for bigger leagues like the NBA, they would simply create their own streaming service (or go with another broadcaster) if Apple refuses to allow them to access this sort of data. I know Apple says a ton about privacy and relative to other big tech companies they are pretty good, but look at the sort of information collected by just about every app on your iPhone, MLS will be getting all of that sort of info and it will be very valuable to them.

  9. locofooty

    June 24, 2022 at 9:37 am

    How does an android user access the Friday Night Baseball game? Through a web browser? You gotta be kidding me if that’s the only way. I can see Apple developing an app for Android once they get some NFL and other sports, maybe not with all the bells and whistles but at least an app and not a freaking web browser. Forget about getting a lot of eyes in other parts of the world, where Android is much more prevalent than Apple. The price point has to be cheap.

    At the end, like it has been mentioned, MLS wanted the money.

    • dave

      June 24, 2022 at 2:37 pm

      @locofooty, I see Android and sports bars as wild cards for Apple’s foray into sports
      If Apple acquire Sunday Ticket as rumored, I expect there will be good solutions for both. MLS and Friday MLB may not be big enough to move the needle. But given a $2 billion per year expense, I assume Apple will want to market Sunday Ticket to everyone, including Android users. Sunday Ticket is also a must-have for many bars. MLS and MLB can hopefully piggyback

    • Michael

      June 24, 2022 at 4:05 pm

      @localfooty. I have Apple TV and Apple Music on Roku. Apple TV is also on Firestick. When you are on your PC you can either download the app or go to the URL Google and Apple have worked out their differences with Apple Music so you can get Apple Music on Android now…but not Apple TV. I would bet that by the time this rolls around in 2023 Apple TV will be on Android as well.

  10. JP

    June 24, 2022 at 9:16 am

    I heard Kartik mention $10-15 on the most recent podcast as his price point. That is definitely too high if it only includes MLS. Paramount+ is $5 for UCL/EL/Serie A/Brasileirao, plus other programming and ESPN+ is $7 for La Liga/Bundesliga/NHL, plus other soccer leagues and sports programming. Double to triple those price points for only MLS will look outrageous in comparison.

    They need to make all MLS inclusive in AppleTV+, not an add on (at least domestically). If they want to make the MLS package a stand alone property in other regions where AppleTV+ programming might not be enticing, then fine.

    • Ra

      June 24, 2022 at 9:42 am

      It should be $2.99/mo or $29.90/year (ideally – $19.90 / year). They will have trouble signing non-MLS fans for more than that, and the objective of the league is to grow.
      They also need to make it easy and straight-forward for commercial customers (bars and other public viewing environments).

      • Michael

        June 24, 2022 at 4:21 pm

        If MLS is setting the prices, more than likely it will be more than NHL Center Ice ($69.99) but less than NBA League Pass ($199.99). Unless Apple is able to get money from advertising, then you would have to have 8.3 million people to subscribe in order to make their $250 million back without Adds. I have Apple TV+ and won’t be buying the add-on. I am curious to see how many games that gets me. If they do a weekly game like they are doing MLB I would gladly watch it. If Apple is setting the prices, I would tend to agree that It would be lower as I truly believe that Apple is using MLS as test market before they go head to head bidding against Amazon to win the rights for NFL Sunday ticket when Direct TV’s contract ends this year. They are not trying to make a profit of this. If they do…it will be gravy. Amazon has years of experience ahead of them in hosting sports league and Apple is trying catch up. They have the money…but Amazon has the experience.

        • JP

          June 24, 2022 at 7:35 pm

          Disney is also in the mix for Sunday Ticket

          • dave

            June 24, 2022 at 7:49 pm

            @JP, interesting. Related, per CNBC site bylined 24-JUN-2022, Sunday Ticket is contractually obligated to premium price (~$300 per year):
            “When the NFL signed contracts with CBS and Fox, the deals included language that mandates Sunday Ticket have a premium price so as not to pull too many eyeballs away from the local market Sunday afternoon games acquired by the broadcast networks, three of the people said. That means any owner of Sunday Ticket rights won’t be able to significantly lower the price on the out-of-market package, which typically costs about $300 per year. It also prevents an existing streaming service, such as ESPN+, to simply add in Sunday Ticket at little or no extra cost to boost subscribers.”

            • JP

              June 24, 2022 at 8:40 pm

              @dave, very interesting that the price is a contractual obligation. Don’t think it changes any of their plans, always expected it to be an add on (if Disney or anyone else gets it) similar to UFC events or the full MLB out of market on ESPN+. I’m still shocked they didn’t do that with the NHL out of market, but glad they didn’t!!

              Understand their reasoning about not wanting to cannibalize the local broadcasts, but, the market for this is largely those who live out of market and want to watch their home (former home) team each week. Those who just want to see the action around the NFL get their fix from Redzone which is pretty cheap so kind of cannibalizes Sunday Ticket and local broadcasts already

              Bars are a different story, read the winner will be allowed to sell satellite rights back to DirectTV for mainly that very purpose.

              • Mercator

                June 25, 2022 at 11:59 am

                I don’t think any of the streaming companies are going to want to work with Direct TV after spending 2 or 3 billion on Sunday ticket rights. Bars have internet, all the bars by me quickly figured out how to get ESPN+ working for the UFC fights, they absolutely will be in a position to get Sunday Ticket even if its streaming only. I actually remember one of the soccer bars I go to infrequently mentioned they got some rebate from ESPN+ to upgrade their internet and that’s how they got the FA cup working – not a big bar a hole in the wall place run by a guy who wouldn’t be out of place in Malaga.

                I think Apple TV will get Sunday Ticket simply because the NFL wants to work with them (they have deals with ESPN and Amazon already). I bet its getting held up because apple wants Global rights. I think the Sunday Ticket deal is also bundled with the local mobile streaming rights. If Apple does get Sunday ticket you have a nice lineup of Fri/Baseball, Sat/Soccer, Sun/Football. MLS would be suicidal to price their offering above $10 a month, even that is probably a bit much given how cheap ESPN+ is. $5 monthly $50 yearly would probably be about right, at least initially.

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