National Writer: Charles Boehm

Garber, Cue forecast massive “opportunity” for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV

Commish photo

MIAMI – MLS, Leagues Cup and Lionel Messi have provided a unique trifecta for Apple TV in 2023.

That was among many perspectives shared by MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Apple Senior Vice President of Services Eddy Cue when discussing year No. 1 of the organizations’ 10-year partnership, speaking before an audience of global industry insiders at this week’s Soccerex convention.

“We spend a lot of money and time trying to create drama,” Cue said in Tuesday’s panel titled ‘Apple & Major League Soccer: Taking MLS to new heights’ at the Mana Wynwood Convention Center. “The best thing that sports does – it is the greatest drama in the world. It’s unscripted, you don't know what's going to happen. And if we had written a drama of Messi coming to MLS, I’m sure that no one would’ve believed it, because it was so good and so much better than we could’ve even imagined.

“So the fact that he did the [free] kick on the last play of the game to win in his first game, and everything that transpired, it was just amazing to watch. It's an incredible feat,” Cue added about Messi’s last-gasp winner during his debut match in July. “That’s why we're so excited about what the future holds.”

World Cup '26

The looming influence of the North America 2026 World Cup was an overarching theme at Soccerex, and with that in mind, Garber predicted increased growth for a league that’s evolved massively in recent years.

“We want the rest of the world to think about this market and the road to Copa América [2024], the Club World Cup in ‘25 and the World Cup in ‘26, that this is the epicenter of the sport. And to do that, you've got to get the best players in the world to start saying, ‘I want to play here,’” Garber said.

“For all of us who run businesses, it's almost impossible to have a forecast four years out, three years out, two years out [where] I know exactly what is going to happen in a moment of time. That's what we in the soccer world and MLS have with the World Cup in 2026,” Garber later added.

“It's going to be bigger than most people expect. This is a soccer nation. We're going to have most of those stadiums in MLS markets, many of them stadiums owned by MLS team owners, all of the activity and energy of the world of football is going to be turning their eyes to this continent, and delivering the best sporting event in the world, in ways that everybody that's part of the ecosystem is going to capitalize on.”

Global spotlight

Messi’s blockbuster arrival at Inter Miami powered MLS’ new media deal past expectations in these early days. And Cue revealed that viewership for the most-watched MLS Season Pass broadcasts ran into seven figures.

“We've had more than a million viewers to watch the biggest games this season; no one expected that,” Cue said. “I lived in Miami 40 years ago. And it's always been, ‘Soccer is just around the corner.’ It's not around the corner now – it’s here, it’s now. And everyone in the world now knows about MLS, everyone knows about Inter Miami, thanks to Messi and the work that the league is doing.

“The thing I'm most proud of [is] if you look at the quality of the production and what we’re doing, it's as good as any NFL game. That's the quality of it,” he added. “It's the best there is in sports when you're watching this on television or on any of your devices.”

Cue also spoke bullishly about the spirit of innovation that guides Apple’s approach to the product, including the ability to stream matches globally with no blackouts, and dynamic adjustments to the viewer experience that can prove difficult on traditional linear TV.

“This is not a media deal like you typically see. We're completely invested in this,” said Cue. “And the way the deal is structured is, the only way I win is if MLS wins and the only way MLS wins is if I win. So we have this relationship where you’re looking at the game and looking at it for fans in the exact same way, whatever’s better.

“A lot of owners have my cell phone number and they’re texting me during the game, saying, ‘Hey, why don't you do this and why don’t you do that?’ For example, on MLS 360, we were putting too many graphics on the bottom [of the screen], and I agreed with them. We can make the change in real-time; there's no discussions, there’s no negotiations that have to happen. Because you have a common interest here that's completely aligned. So it's incredibly fun to do. You come up with any idea, we can try it out.”

Momentum driver

With Messi’s paradigm-shifting move from Paris Saint-Germain to Inter Miami the headliner of a steady increase in investment and ambition across MLS, both Cue and Garber projected a vision of a league operating on a different scale 10 years down the line, particularly in the wake of an expanded 48-team, 16-city World Cup on these shores.

“All the research we've done on the last four or five World Cups, there is always a boost in the pro leagues after a World Cup takes place. But this has to be more than that. This needs to be changing the way people think about our sport,” said Garber.

“So what will the next 10 years look like? It's going to be getting all the teams we have in the league, soon 30, getting them deeply embedded in our community and very relevant, building a broader fan base. We had over 10 million fans, ticket buyers, this year. That's going to continue to grow. Over 90% capacity in our stadiums; how do we translate that fan interest that’s very focused on attending games at a unique fan experience, into a global media product, so that we are not just a player in the global sport, but we become more of a global league?

“That means having a different player pool, it means thinking about our media environment outside of just what is local.”

Longtime MLS observers may not be surprised by the scale of Garber’s vision for the league. Perhaps more striking was the extent to which Cue’s outlook seems to match or even eclipse it.

“When I think of America, it’s the biggest country in the world, the most [powerful] economic country in the world. So when I looked at soccer, people think it's crazy, but why wouldn't we have the best soccer league in the world? Why wouldn't the best players want to play here?” said Cue. “When I looked at the 10 years, yeah, in my mind, we got into this because we thought that together, we could build the best soccer league in the world. That's the goal. That's the objective. You know, we're trying to be the best. Otherwise, why do it?

“Obviously, right now there's Premier League, La Liga and Serie A and all that standpoint around, all these different leagues. But you're starting to see this – Messi wanting to come play here says a whole lot. There's a lot of players that are going to want to come play here and be part of this growth, of this opportunity. And so when I go out and look at the 10 years, the way we're going to measure it is, are we going to be one of the best leagues in the world? That's success. That's what we need to be striving for.”