Thoughts from the Sports Loft companies on the Apple x MLS Deal
A ten year agreement bringing all MLS games into one place, and the ramping up of Apple’s participation in the sports broadcasting landscape, is certain to have significant implications for the sports industry.
Noticeably absent from many media pundits’ lists of prospective bidders for the new rights package, Apple’s deal with MLS has furthered their commitment to live sports following their Friday Night MLB agreement. It’s quite a change from the perception that the tech giants were sitting on the sidelines in the battle for sports broadcasting rights.
In this week’s blog post we consult the leadership teams of our Sports Loft member companies to get their expert perspectives on what this deal means for MLS fans, the industry, and the future of sports broadcasting.
A Bet on Growth
Firstly on the deal size and length. $250m a year is a healthy increase on the $115m ($90m domestic, $15m overseas) the MLS brought in during the last rights cycle. The league has benefited from increasing viewership (276k avg. viewership across the regular season on ESPN platforms vs 233k last season, or an increase of 18%), and should benefit further from a home World Cup in 2026, a national team with some genuinely exciting young talent, and dare we say, the potential arrival of a certain Lionel Messi. A ten year deal will allow Apple to capture some upside if a home World Cup can supercharge support, and with it a young fanbase to Apple TV. "Given the high and growing levels of participation in soccer in the US, it makes sense for Apple to go after the MLS's young and digital savvy audience in this way” says Balln CEO, Andrew Hall.
The deal will also allow for a more consistent viewing experience. Fixing kickoffs to 7 or 8pm local time on Wednesday and Saturdays will give fans predictable schedules (allowing for different timezones), while having all MLS games on Apple TV means a single destination for all games, and enables the league to optimise its operations. “It should simplify how the MLS delivers their social content, with no more concerns about meeting the requirements of multiple broadcasters on different nights” says Slate’s COO, Will Brooke. “We could see the deal allowing for features like Apple TV’s SharePlay being used, and deeper partnership in other areas too such as memojis in apps like iMessage wearing MLS jerseys”.
Personalised Content Anytime, Anywhere
At a time when sports fans are facing a cost of living crunch, allowing MLS fans to pay for exactly what they want could be a welcome new model, and the envy of sports fans around the world. The end of MLS streaming blackouts, and indeed, providing a free subscription to all MLS season ticket holders, will make the experience of being a committed MLS fan an easier one. That said, with many fans already paying for cable or other sports streaming packages there will be some for whom the MLS’s move to Apple TV adds yet another subscription and further expense. Concerns have been raised that the move might harm the discoverability of the MLS among prospective fans too - taking games away from local TV and placing them behind a paywall is bound to impact viewership in the immediate term, just as the Champions League’s move from free-to-air ITV to BT Sport did in the UK back in 2015. Perhaps with that in mind, Apple will place some games in front of the paywall, while some games will be available non-exclusively via linear broadcast.
"There's understandable concern about fans losing their local TV MLS broadcasters” says Spalk’s Tom Read. “But this is also an opportunity for Apple and MLS to become a market leader in alternate commentary feeds and create truly targeted broadcasts for every MLS fan for every match. Through being an OTT first broadcast product, they have the opportunity to create and easily publish multiple live broadcast feeds for each game at scale - for example: home, away, Spanish language and gambling commentary feeds.”
Beyond the games themselves, we're excited to see Apple’s commitment to the development of further original programming and behind the scenes content from the MLS, and whether they can “Drive to Survive” the league. Building the brand of the league and the profile of its athletes will be core to the mission - and ironically will require leveraging platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok. Greenfly CEO Daniel Kirschner agrees, “the statement made by the MLS and Apple showcases how much off-the-field photos and videos have transitioned from being ‘nice to have’ assets relegated to social media channels, to being part of the core experience on OTT platforms offering live games. We've seen firsthand for years how much fans demand and value it”.
A Goldmine of Data
A key part of the rationale for sports moving D2C is the level of insight a platform owner should get into its user base - not just signup details but detailed insights into individual’s user behaviour - preferred content, preferred athletes, preferred viewing times and devices.
"It shouldn't be underestimated the depth and detail of viewer data that can be generated from viewership of MLS matches flowing through AppleTV” says Tom Tercek, Chief Strategy Officer of Pumpjack Dataworks. “With sophisticated fan data technology, there is a massive opportunity for the MLS to better understand their fanbase, engage them more effectively, and leverage that knowledge to grow sponsorship revenue”.
If the MLS is seen to use the data that they will gather through this partnership to really grow the sport, its fanbase and the league’s revenues, this has the potential to set a precedent for other sports leagues.
The Fan Experience
Apple has changed the customer experience before in areas such as music, mobile phones, personal computing and developing the whole notion of app economy so can it do it again in sports content? And can a tech platform change the experience in ways that content companies could not?
“The further leagues expand their audiences through digital channels, the more on-demand services will be required at all hours of the day and night” says Satsifi Labs CEO, Donny White. “Consolidating to a platform like Apple means that fans will have a standard method to access digital content, live events, ticketing & merchandise, and teams need to be ready for that”.
Given that the entire Apple ecosystem has the methods to interact (phone, Siri, Apple TV), the means of payment (Apple Pay) and the means of identification / personalisation (Apple ID) it will be interesting to see whether Apple and the MLS try to deliver a consumer experience that enables content viewers to seamlessly transact with the teams, sponsor brands and the league.
To learn more about how the Sports Loft companies are working with leading rightsholders and content owners as the broadcast landscape changes quickly, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
"It shouldn't be underestimated the depth and detail of viewer data that can be generated from viewership of MLS matches flowing through AppleTV”