One of the biggest questions hanging around Major League Soccer was how its media partnership would manifest in 2023 and beyond.
Answers arrived Tuesday, as MLS announced a 10-year, first-of-its-kind partnership with Apple that will allow fans to stream every single MLS match through the Apple TV app, without any local blackouts or restrictions.
Perhaps it was fate that this was the final outcome.
“When we started out this process we had a logo on the whiteboard, and that logo was the Apple logo,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a virtual press conference, adding it's "a historic day."
Global, streaming-focused deal
The global partnership lasts through 2032 and contains every MLS and Leagues Cup match, as well as select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches. There’s no need for a traditional pay TV bundle, and fans can get every live MLS match by subscribing to a new MLS streaming service, available exclusively through the Apple TV app.
A broad selection of programming will be available at no additional cost to Apple TV+ subscribers, with a limited number of matches available for free. Season ticket holders will also get access to the new MLS streaming service with their full-season ticket packages.
Consider it a major step toward our increasingly streaming-centric way of consuming content, tapping into MLS’s young, diverse and digitally-native audience that looks to watch games anywhere, anytime, anywhere around the world. All that’s required is internet access; there are a variety of devices where the app can be found, spanning from smartphones and computers to smart TVs and gaming consoles.
“We're thinking about what is happening with the transition of sports viewership and fan engagement, going from what has been a traditional cable model over to what has become more of a streaming model,” Garber said. “Whether it's entertainment or sports, fans are accessing their games in ways that are different than perhaps they did two, five years ago. And that's going to be even more dramatic in the years to come.”
Centralized productions, no local TV
In the new media partnership, local broadcasts are going away and game productions are being streamlined via a centralized location. Matches will be produced in English and Spanish from the jump, and all matches involving Canadian teams will be available in French. There are plans to introduce Portuguese broadcasts long-term, too, while fans can select local radio as an audio option when viewing a match. Broadcasts will have pregame, halftime and postgame coverage.
MLS Deputy Commissioner and President Gary Stevenson said midweek games will be played on Wednesday nights and weekend games are set for Saturday nights, creating predictability for fans. They could be moved for stadium availability reasons or if there’s a linear TV viewing window that’s available; MLS is still in talks with linear networks for select showings.
There will also be a whip-around show so fans never miss any action, an element that Stevenson is particularly excited by. That’s on top of pushing content through the Apple News platform and originally-produced programming that’s available alongside game replays, highlights and analysis.
“That whip-around show will be as long as six hours because most of the games will start at 7 or 8 o'clock local, depending on when the club wants to have kickoff,” Stevenson said. “But you can imagine what a Saturday night's going to look like. It's almost like Decision Day every single Saturday night where we're in and out of games and there's no more local restrictions. So the fan viewing experience is going to be very different.”
One central theme that Garber kept returning to was the global reach of the media partnership. It’s something that Apple’s also bullish on, increasing accessibility to the league through its platform.
“We're going to take all the things Apple is really good at – experiences, the style, the approach we take to making great products – to this and we're committed to growing the sport of soccer with MLS,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services. “We're going to make it easy for people to fall in love with MLS and root for their favorite clubs. MLS is already on a tremendous trajectory as the fastest-growing soccer league in the world. We think it's going to get even bigger as the  World Cup comes to the US, Canada and Mexico.”
Apple’s already been a transformative company in so many areas of society, and now their pioneering efforts are coming to MLS via a long-term relationship.
“The opportunity for us to be integrated across the Apple ecosystem was really important,” Stevenson said. “You think about when Apple got into the music business, now they are the music business. You think about when Apple got in the news business just four years ago and now they're a dominant player in news. So this idea and what they can do for us and for our fanbase, to create new fans and develop and engage our existing fans, is so exciting to us.”
Complete details about the new streaming service, including when fans can sign up, subscription pricing, the match schedule, broadcast teams, production enhancements and more will be announced in the coming months.
For now, it’s a build-up to the 2023 campaign when how fans engage with MLS content changes significantly. Through Apple, all 29 clubs (St. Louis CITY SC joining via expansion) will have a greater reach than ever before.
“We have the ability, for the first time, to take this league, which has been a North American version of the global game, and turn it into a game that can have a more global presence and fan connection opportunity,” Garber said.