Apple Takes Another Bite at Sports. Are They Ready To Gorge?

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Yesterday, Apple TV+ announced a long-term deal with a U.S. professional league.  No, it wasn’t the NFL.

Instead, Major League Soccer and the streaming service announced a 10-year deal, reportedly worth $2.5B, which will see Apple emerge as the primary distribution source fot the entire league schedule, plus additional games from Leagues Cup and MLS Next.  In doing so, the MLS is leaving deals with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision behind.  While it is anticipated that there will be a small number of matches that will continue to be available on linear TV, and other leagues such as the NHL has included exclusive content on a streaming service (Hulu) as part of their most recent rights deal, MLS is the first pro league that will utilize streaming as their primary destination.

Soccer purists will rightly scoff at the quality of the play and players in MLS, a league that in the global sports landscape operates on a timeline reciprocal to the major European leagues (summer-centric) and features a combination of older global stars in the twilight of their careers and secondary players who are effectively competing in the equivalent of Triple A baseball or the USFL.  While there are strong fan pockets in several areas such as the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and Portland reguklarly draw large, vocal crowds to their venues), a majority of MLS matches are played to sparse crowds in hot weather who frequently see scoreless draws that arise more because of offensive incompentency than defensive strength.

But soccer purists don’t necessarily buy iPhones.  An awful lot of younger, affluent, active people do, and just as they have embraced secondary news aggregators like Apple News as a default destination for information, having nearly 1000 matches over a seven-month span, concentrated primarily on midweek and weekend evenings will literally force-feed the availability of live content to all of those owners.  And unlike the more limited deal with Major League Baseball, this is a volume play.  The league is expected to condense the majority of their schedule to Saturdays and Wednesdays, much like the Premier League, and multiple matches will air simultaneously.  A Red Zone-type channel is almost a certainty, and there is also a strong possibility that individual team season passes will be offered in addition to an all-you-can-eat approach.

The architect of this deal is Eddy Cue, a longtime Apple executive and a direct report to Tim Cook.  As senior vice president of Services, he currently oversees Apple’s content stores, includin Apple Music, Apple Pay and both the Apple Books and iTunes stores.  In other words, he is in charge of aggregating lots of content and finding ways to coerce you to utilize those distribution platform to access it through ubiquity and behavioral conditiong.  Again, volume and convenience is a driver in adoption.

The existing MLS content deals arguably make the matches more accessible, but availability has been frustrating.  As a passionate fan, I can’t tell you how confusing I have found this season’s schedule.  Start times are inconsistent, national games on the current broadcasters are not readily available as part of any streaming package (particularly the Univision matches), and with the exception of Saturday night leaves a lot of opportunties for engagement on the table.   In assuring that there will be no local blackouts and mosrt foreign language rights will be consolidated under one roof, Cue is designing an ecosystem for MLS that has literally saved the music and publishing industries by allowing them to evolve into digital-first distribution.  And for a period that will extend through the early 2030s, that’s exceptionally forward thinking.

And even though the number of viewers will ultimately matter to sponsors and potential advertisers, moving these matches to Apple will quiet the rarings realities that the linear networks see–on average, MLS ranks far down the list of major team sports, more in line with the WNBA than MLB.   And in the world of perception triumphing over reality freeing one’s self from that converation can be liberating.  No one outside of a few AppleTV+ executives truly knows how many people watched an episode of TED LASSO or the movie CODA, but both somehow managed to become the best-in-class in their respective media.  If the perception of MLS can be shifted to enough more casual fans, or even non-fans, through Apple’s aggressive marketing to drive subscriptions, MLS clearly wins, and so too will Apple.

So now Apple has taken bites out of two sports, and the NFL Sunday Ticket rights are reportedly next in line.  Sunday Ticket has the exact structure for Apple as well–passoionate, multi-tasking, and open to embracing change.  When DirecTV introduced the package in the mid-90s to what at the time was a unique distribution platform, it embraced similar openness to evolve the way games were watched.  Apple TV and a global, mobile-friendly availability is an awfully tempting option for a league that already commands television viewing behavior on Sundays in the U.S.  The incremental growrh opportunity to capture more active viewers not wanting to be tethered to their couches is dramatic.  Amazon Prime Video is very interested, but if the NFL empowers its chief rival with a package of content of its own, it assures that both will be aggressive in marketing their product to compete against themselves, and the league is the big winner in such a titanic battle,.

And if somehow the MLS deal generates more money and higher visibility for the league, that might open the eyes of some higher level global talent to consider playing in the league before their 30th birthday.  And if that happens, then everybody wins.

I have a Find My Phone app on my Apple Watch to know where my phone is.  I’ll soon know where my MLS games are.  Technology is best adopted when it’s simple to access.  Guess who’s gonna be a subscriber to MLS matches on Apple TV?


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