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Zuhosky’s Take #16: Negativity Toward MLS’ Apple TV Deal Cynicism at Its Core

As of this writing, the 2023 Major League Soccer season is exactly one month away, and in just a week’s time from this writing, a new media rights deal between MLS and Apple TV takes effect with the Feb. 1 launch of MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+ ahead of the opening weekend on Feb. 25 and 26. MLS Season Pass is noteworthy in that it’s the first time that an American-based professional sports league has sold the entirety of its games to an over-the-top streaming service, rather than a group of linear television networks.

Appealing Games To Start The Season

Among the noteworthy matches during the first weekend of play in the new season is a rematch of last year"s El Trafico thriller in the Western Conference Playoffs between the Los Angeles Galaxy and LAFC at the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena, CA and an emotional home opener at Bank of America Stadium between Charlotte FC and the New England Revolution.

This will be the first regular season match for Charlotte since the Jan. 19 passing of midfielder Anton Walkes, who died from injuries sustained in a boating accident. He was 25 years of age. All of us extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Not Everyone is Happy About MLS Season Pass

While some of the play-by-play commentators and analysts have been named for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+ with still more to come (and all English-language commentators working games from the match grounds), not all is merriment surrounding the deal. Even after the 10-year rights pact was signed about seven and a half months ago, there was negativity.

The most common of these responses was a canned answer to the effect of “Since this is behind a paywall, I guess I"m never going to watch MLS again." If there were more hours in the day than 24, we still wouldn"t even come close to finding all of the tweets containing some variation of this answer.

Keep in mind that these comments were all made in the immediate aftermath of the news breaking. While the initial reaction cooled off somewhat in the ensuing months, the announcement of the pricing structure brought about the return of an old refrain:

“Oh, Come On! Don"t We Already Pay Enough Money?"

Two months ago, Apple TV+ unveiled the cost for MLS Season Pass. Viewers who do not already own a subscription to Apple"s direct-to-consumer service will have to shell out $14.99 (USD) per month or $99.99 (USD) per season over the next 10 years. Fans with season tickets to any MLS club will have their subscriptions included with their seats.

Current subscribers of Apple TV+ will be able to purchase MLS Season Pass at a discounted rate of $12.99 per month or $79.99 per season during that span. Pricing for international markets was not available online at press time.

A Sign Of The Times

Given the rise of and reliance on streaming services to consume sporting events, it makes sense that MLS would go with a subscription-based streaming package to show its games for the next decade. It should be noted, however, that select MLS matches, including the entirety of the first matchday, dubbed “MLS is Back", will be accessible without a subscription.

Streaming media is here to stay. Once subscription-based packages, like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and ESPN+ came into play, it became evident that this isn"t a fad.

MLS Season Pass is Good For the League

One of the notable takeaways from MLS Season Pass when it was launched was the fact that every single game will be available on Apple TV+ without territorial restrictions throughout the world. This is something that you couldn"t get with MLS" previous deal with ESPN+.

If you had an MLS match available to you on a local broadcast station or a regional sports network, it would be blacked out on MLS Live over ESPN+. At the same time, however, this would strangely apply to New York Red Bulls matches in league play.

An ESPN+ subscriber who bought the service without the Disney Bundle (Disney+ and Hulu) would not be able to watch a Red Bulls match in MLS, whether the viewer was located in New York City and the surrounding area or not. With the league ending local television broadcasts of games after last season, blackouts, such as the ones involving the Red Bulls, are no longer.

Add to it the fact that Apple TV+ is including a weekly whiparound show on Saturday nights, and some Wednesday nights (when most league matches will take place at 7:30 pm local time), this is a win for everybody involved.

Demographics The Reason for the Deal

Major League Soccer covets a young demographic. These days, young viewers don"t always watch their favorite programming or sporting events through linear television.

If they can"t watch a program live on television, they"ll be playing it back on DVR. At the same time, however, if they"re not playing it back on DVR after the live telecast, you can bet that the young viewers that MLS caters to are watching the show on a streaming platform.

This is pretty much in the same vein as the UFC‘s current media rights deal with ESPN. UFC President Dana White knew what he was doing when the original five-year deal between the promotion and cable network was extended by two years just two months into its life to include pay-per-view exclusivity on ESPN+.

It Could Be Worse

However, for everything good about MLS Season Pass, there are still some naysayers who have been far too quick to dismiss the deal as a terrible one. It could have been much worse than what we"re going to get.

Major League Baseball knows the danger of having an in-house production go south firsthand. In 1988, CBS Sports acquired over-the-air television rights to the Big Leagues for a four-year deal at north of $1 billion, covering the 1990 through 1993 MLB seasons.

In short, the network lost half of its investment on the old ballgame, resulting in MLB entering a six-year contract with NBC and ABC to split network broadcast rights upon the CBS deal"s expiration in 1993. Had the deal been able to run in its entirety, it would have taken baseball to the end of the 1999 season.

The Baseball Network"s Shortcomings

Dubbed The Baseball Network, the pact gave ABC and NBC affiliates exclusive broadcast windows where no other ballgames were airing on local stations. ABC"s coverage was primarily on Saturday evenings, with some Monday windows prior to the NFL preseason, with NBC scheduled to air games on Fridays at 8 pm Eastern and Pacific.

Notice that we said “8 pm Eastern and Pacific." Barring the first-ever ABC telecast of The Baseball Network"s top game being a New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners contest in July of 1994, East Coast affiliates would only be able to air an 8 pm ET first pitch.

If you were a fan of an East Coast team when they played on the West Coast and thus played an 11 pm ET game on a night when Baseball Night in America was airing, you were out of luck since it was too late at night to air on the local station. If you lived in a secondary market of two MLB teams, you"d only be able to watch one game, ditto if you lived in a major market with two teams.

A damaging players" strike that wiped out the remainder of the 1994 season caused the remainder of The Baseball Network agreement to be voided prior to the second season in 1995. Comparatively, MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+ is much better.

Final Thoughts

Quite simply, when it comes to MLS Season Pass, there"s an old adage that you"ve got to keep in mind: “Don"t knock it until you"ve tried it." There have been people dismissing the package as a failure before it"s even launched.

No one can pass judgment on something before it happens. We"re probably not going to know whether or not MLS Season Pass is a success or not until several years deep into the deal. For the time being, the new agreement is a win.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

Dave Lewis
247 days ago
The Pass caters only to hardcore fans, and will stunt the growth of every team's fan base. Painting a smiley face on the deal won't change that fact. They should have eased into it by offering it IN ADDITION to local broadcasts.
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