Major League Soccer shocked the North American sports landscape in June 2022 when it announced a 10-year $2.5 billion broadcast rights deal with Apple. News of the deal was met with excitement from many longtime fans. For one, Apple promised to broadcast every MLS match, making it possible for Portland Timbers fans to see every minute of the 2023 season and beyond without blackout restrictions.
There was a time when MLS struggled to get matches on broadcast television. It was a time when supporters were lucky to see one match a week on ESPN. If you were a fan of the American soccer league but didn’t live in an MLS market, then you could forget about seeing matches on local television. Coverage of MLS was sparse, with its website the only place to find news, which was rarely up to date.
Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass aimed to change the issues fans had since the birth of the soccer league in 1996. With more professional and semi-professional soccer leagues than ever before in the United States, the game continues to grow at unparalleled levels.
Soccer is set to become even bigger, with the United States, Canada, and Mexico co-hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The timing was right for Apple to jump on the American soccer bandwagon, but the company may have bitten off more than it can chew. The MLS season is now over three months old, having started on February 9. So, how is MLS Season Pass doing?
MLS Season Pass: Great production, but who’s watching it?
MLS, for the most part, has left traditional television broadcasts behind. Sure, the league still has some matches aired on FOX around the U.S., but most of MLS’s matches are available exclusively on Apple TV+. The switch to Apple TV+ has, unfortunately, made MLS, a niche sports league in North America, an even more niche competition.
ESPN and FOX knew MLS’s ratings from years of working with the league. Executives at both companies would have laughed out loud when they learned Apple wanted to pay $2.5bn for MLS’s streaming rights. At the same time, MLS’s executives couldn’t have signed the contract with Apple fast enough to lock in the deal.
One of the problems with Apple TV+ is subscribers watching the games must be fans already. Fans must plop down $13 a month or $79 for the full soccer season. That is the price if you are already an Apple TV+ subscriber, however. If you aren’t, the price for MLS Season Pass is $15 per month or $99 for the full season. With the number of streaming services in the U.S., the likelihood of casual fans purchasing the MLS Season pass seems low. The cost of living is also increasing, so adding another streaming service is difficult for many households.
Casual fans do have the chance to watch free-to-air matches on Apple TV. MLS and Apple have already altered the free-to-watch matches, however. Fans were offered six free-to-view matches each week at the start of the campaign. Portland Timbers fans would have anticipated watching around 14 fixtures for free via the streaming platform without having to pay for MLS Season Pass.
It appears now that the number of free-to-view matches has been cut to just two per week. MLS and Apple had announced the free games well in advance of the match weekend. This has now ended, with fans learning just one week before kick-off which matches will be free to watch. There is no official word on whether the number will increase once more. It can be assumed that Apple wasn’t happy with the viewing numbers. Perhaps more fans were tuning in for the free games compared to the matches behind the paywall.
MLS and Apple TV+: Who’s watching?
The MLS and Apple partnership is new. The two groups, and soccer fans, will need to be flexible, as it is likely change will come in the offseason with the production and broadcast of matches. Yet, there was always a feeling that Apple overpaid for a soccer league few broadcasters cared about. Most American sports broadcasters are interested in the rights for the Premier League, La Liga, and the Champions League. Apple may have thought MLS’s appeal was stronger and just needed a broadcast platform to reach more fans.
Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t commented on its relationship with MLS. So, it is unknown whether Apple is happy with the product or has buyer’s remorse. Neither Apple nor MLS has shared metrics on the performance of Season Pass either. Fans are watching, but as I learned long ago, MLS fans predominately watch their hometown team in-stadium or on television and no others.
The difference between MLS and leagues like the Premier League is that many MLS fans are not interested in watching the rest of the league’s teams. Of course, this is just a generalization, but MLS is a niche product in a country with a large sports landscape.
In Portland alone, there are the Trail Blazers, Thorns, Winterhawks, and Pickles. Then there are the collegiate sports programs in the Pacific Northwest. There are so many sports available to follow, it is difficult to watch every MLS match each weekend, whether it is the Timbers or another club. It can even be incredibly time-consuming to watch the highlights of games via Apple TV. With 29 teams in the league, you are investing some serious time into MLS.
MLS isn’t must-watch TV
MLS Season Pass’s production is fantastic. The pre-game shows are top-notch, and the wrap-around show is fantastic. These are things many MLS fans likely never expected from the league or a broadcast partner. MLS nearly went out of business in the early 2000s, so to see it provide high-quality production on par with Major League Baseball and the NBA is something special.
The problem with MLS Season Pass is the nature of MLS itself. The league’s regular season is mostly meaningless. However, that could be said about the regular season for all major American sports leagues except the NFL. There are too many games that have little impact on the postseason. MLS needs to make the product a must-watch.
It isn’t just adding star-named players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to increase interest because the MLS product on the field is solid. The way to make the league interesting is to make every match count. Portland fans are mad about the Timbers. Yet, those same fans would be even crazier about the club with fewer playoff places available to teams at the end of the season. By making every Timbers match more important, you create more dedicated fans. The Premier League is a sprint to the finish, with teams fighting for the title, European qualification, and to avoid relegation. In MLS, teams jog in a marathon to reach the playoffs. In 2022, three MLS teams qualified for the playoffs despite winning the same number of matches they lost.
Right now, 18 of the 29 teams in MLS qualify for the playoffs. The league allows 62% of its teams to make the postseason. What is exciting about watching a league in which the regular season means very little?
Fans going to regular home matches for the experience is one thing, but investing time and money to watch on Apple TV+ is another. Fans must become invested in the product, which they aren’t right now. The league struggles to make fans care about the other teams in the league. Why should a Timbers fan care about the New England Revolution? A marquee player or a strong storyline is needed to create more viewers.
ESPN, FOX, and MLS’s old television providers knew the league’s metrics. They understood the soccer league’s popularity on broadcast TV. If Apple had known MLS could not draw fans, then it may not have entered into a 10-year $2.5bn contract. It feels like Apple believed MLS just needed a strong streaming platform to reach fans. Now, Apple may realize it needs a stronger, more exciting product.
The 2024 MLS season and Season Pass product could be very different. In the end, Apple could have a major impact on MLS and the league’s structure over the next few years as it attempts to bring in more viewers.