Apple's foray into live sports took a big step forward Tuesday.
Apple and Major League Soccer have announced a 10-year partnership on a streaming service that will allow fans to watch every game without local blackouts or restrictions. The service will be available exclusively through the Apple TV app beginning next year.
The deal is Apple’s second venture into streaming professional sports. In April, it began airing “Friday Night Baseball,” an exclusive weekly doubleheader of Major League Baseball games.
“The opportunity to partner with a sports league, and truly build the product together with them is very, very unique,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services. “We can bring the things that we do really well with the things that they do really well and really make the product, which I think will be significantly better for the fans. We want to create a great experience for fans to be able to watch and experience MLS like they’ve never had before."
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Apple is not paying a rights fee but rather a minimum guarantee against revenues that will be generated with both selling subscriptions.
“It’s part of what we both wanted. We’re in business together,” Garber said.
People with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press that the minimum guarantee is worth $250 million per year. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t at liberty to publicly discuss financial matters.
Sports Business Journal was the first to report about the minimum guarantee.
The details of the streaming service will be announced in the coming months. The package will be included for fans who have full-season ticket packages for their club.
Some MLS and Leagues Cup matches will be available at no additional cost to Apple TV+ subscribers, with a limited number of matches also available for free.
“We really couldn’t have found a better partner to embark on this new journey together to capitalize on the momentum that exists in MLS today,” Garber said. “We can use this deal as rocket fuel as we build towards the World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2026 and thinking about what the sport of soccer, what Major League Soccer could look like, in the years beyond."
Currently, most MLS out-of-market games are streamed on ESPN+, but there are blackout restrictions due to some local rights agreements. The league’s deals with Fox Sports and ESPN expire at the end of the year. ESPN has carried games since the league began in 1996 and Fox since 2014. Garber is hoping the league can reach a deal with a broadcast partner.
Even with the Apple deal, MLS does have the opportunity to simulcast some games nationally.
Streaming is already built into soccer fans' DNA. The league said it has found in various studies that 83% of MLS fans watch sports on streaming devices or recorded TV in a typical week, much higher than the general average of 52% for all TV viewers.
What also makes the deal intriguing for Apple is that MLS has the youngest and most diverse audience compared to the other four major professional North American sports leagues.
Besides all regular-season and postseason matches, the package includes all Leagues Cup matches — the competition between MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX — as well as select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches.
Apple will also partner with MLS on presentation of the matches as the league takes over production. This is another step forward for the league, but is similar to the way European soccer leagues do business. All matches will be called in English and Spanish while those involving Canadian clubs will also be available in French.
All matches will also be available in Full HD (1080p) for the first time. Previously, matches were broadcast in 1080i or 720p.
Garber said the league will have a more streamlined schedule beginning next season, with most matches being played on Saturdays at 7 p.m. local time and some on Wednesdays. The only time that might change is for a national broadcast or stadium conflict. The league will expand to 29 teams in 2023 with the debut of St. Louis CITY SC.
The deal comes as Apple is also exploring opportunities with other sports. The company has been pursuing streaming NFL games when the league’s “Sunday Ticket” expires at the end of the upcoming season.