Apple Park in Cupertino, California — Apple’s corporate headquarters — is a massive, four-story ring that sits on a few hundred acres about an hour outside of downtown San Francisco. It looks plucked out of a sci-fi novel, as if a spaceship simply descended from the heavens and permanently moored itself to a plot of land on America’s west coast.
The design of the place is futuristic, simple and elegant, not entirely unlike Apple’s products. Many of them, particularly the iPhone, have become fixtures in American life and earned an almost cult-like following amongst users. To many of those consumers, the thought of switching to another brand feels beyond comprehension.
The Apple user, the company’s marketing suggests, is discerning, upwardly mobile and young. That very same consumer is Major League Soccer’s dream customer. Today, when subscriptions open to MLS’s Season Pass package on Apple TV, we’ll begin to learn to what degree those consumers intersect, and how many new ones might be drawn in by the spectacle.
As of today, every single MLS match — regular season, post-season, Leagues Cup, all of it — will be streamed on Apple TV as part of a landmark 10-year media rights agreement, a pact that will bring MLS a reported $2.5 billion over the next decade.
It is unsurprising that MLS, a league still clawing for relevance and eager to be perceived as, well, major league, was eager to attach itself to Apple. Despite its size, the company has the same sort of hip cache as many of the league’s newest markets, “it” cities like Nashville and Austin. As MLS continues to grow it remains ever-changing, constantly in search of clout and recognition. Undoubtedly, the deal with Apple certainly fits that mold.
That growth could also depend in part on fans’ willingness to pay. MLS Season Pass will run $14.99 per month during the season or $99 per season, and Apple TV+ subscribers can sign up at a special price of $12.99 per month and $79 per season. However, a significant number of games are available in front of the paywall and free on Apple TV. That includes the entire opening weekend of the season, as well as six matches per week. Those will be announced later, on a rolling basis.
Season-ticket holders of any MLS club will have an annual subscription included with their package. Apple expects between 300,000-400,000 subscribers to fall in this bucket.
The league and Apple have been busy over the past couple of months getting the word out and earlier this year, they hosted media at a pair of events in San Jose and Cupertino. On January 10th, MLS commissioner Don Garber helped introduce a selection of the on-air talent that the league has chosen to broadcast its matches. The competition for those spots was fierce and that unveiling felt a bit like the end of Survivor episode, with the chosen few being trotted out in celebration.
The next day, at Apple’s headquarters, Garber was joined by Apple CEO Tim Cook for a more elaborate roll-out. Both events felt about how you’d expect them to — full of the type of vapid PR-speak most anybody would deploy at such a gathering. Things felt congratulatory, at times, maybe understandably so from MLS’s perspective. Apple expressed its excitement at MLS’s product. MLS showered its new broadcast partner with praise.
Undoubtedly, there is still uncertainty surrounding the deal. But for the last several weeks, MLS and Apple’s focus has been on getting word of the official Season Pass launch to as many people as possible.
The January 11th event featured not just Cook and Garber but also a host of others, including MLS players like LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta and Toronto FC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye. Alongside them stood an American soccer figure who probably dwarfs them both in popularity: Brendan Hunt, the actor who plays Coach Beard on Apple TV’s own “Ted Lasso.” Surrounded by 22-foot glass walls, Hunt served as Cook’s comic foil during his introductory remarks.
Hunt referenced the sport’s growing audience after a rousing World Cup final in which Argentina defeated France. “Now what?” he said. “Will those (new fans) stick around? Will they catch the buzz? All those kids were treated to perhaps the greatest game of all time.”
Then the Los Angeles FC season ticket-holder added, slyly, “… according to some people.”
“According to other people, it was the second-best 3-3, double-overtime penalty shootout of late 2022.” It was a nod to the MLS Cup finals in which LA defeated Philadelphia.
Behind him, a few dozen MLS players chuckled softly. Then Hunt really hammed it up by introducing Cook, 62, as “a man who had all the tools to be the best goalkeeper in the history of all Auburn University if only ‘Ted Lasso’ had come out a little earlier.”
Cook kept things understated, speaking for all of 61 seconds in welcoming MLS Commissioner Don Garber and the assembled players.
“We are now a part of the family together,’’ Cook said, to another round of applause.
Now comes the hard part: meeting expectations.
MLS Season Pass rolls out today with a soft opening of sorts. Before the live games kick off in a few weeks, the app will offer pre-produced content, such as 2022 season-in-review shows, player profiles, highlight packages and clips highlighting the culture and history of each MLS club. There was some heartburn within some of the league’s clubs when they were tasked with producing all of this, but the league, those familiar with the agreement with Apple said, was keen to have a sizable selection of content ready for consumption on day one.
Season Pass offers dedicated pages for every MLS club, which Apple says will allow users to personalize their experience. Their favorite club’s matches will be prioritized in their Apple TV watchlist, for example, and they’ll receive notifications across all of their Apple devices whenever a match involving their club is about to start. Fans will also be able to watch full-match replays going back as far as 2019.
By the end of this month, when the 2023 season gets underway, match windows will include a half-hour national pregame show, a match-specific primer in each stadium, a halftime show and a national post-match show. Given the number of time zones to cover, there would usually be coverage on game nights from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m. ET.
In each case, the MLS Season Pass crew from both the English- and Spanish-language will broadcast on-site – never remotely. The league, sources familiar with the Apple pact said earlier this week, has only committed to doing this in 2023. Whether they continue to travel talent to every match in 2024 and beyond is still up in the air.
“We’re going through something that nobody’s ever gone through unless you’re starting a network,’’ Garber during the Apple Park event.
Earlier this week Apple announced its full broadcast and in-studio team, a mix of talent that blends some of the league’s older voices with a few newer faces. Though broadcast teams will be regionalized to a certain extent, the league has chosen against assigning broadcast duties for specific matches ahead of the season in an attempt to remain nimble, sources said on Monday. It’s a move, the league hopes, that will allow them to assign their premier broadcasters to the most desirable matches every week.
Among those top names is former ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, whose hire was a minor coup for MLS. The former MLS and U.S. men’s national team striker remains among the most recognizable faces and voices in the American game. At an event hosted by Apple and MLS in New York on Tuesday morning, Twellman reflected on the broadcast agreement and offered his early impressions of Apple as a partner.
“Every year, it feels like MLS was just trying to get anything and everything they could, whether it was fighting for scraps, fighting for a mention here, whatever it may be,” said Twellman. “We all have to do that. Now, Apple walked in here kind of with an open book, wide open and said, ‘How do we make this better?’ And right away, they looked at it and said, ‘Well, can we fix the schedule?’ So that was fixed. The game is going to be under the lights, the game is going to be on at the same time, that continuity is huge for growth. And honestly, you and I can’t answer the question (of how big it might be), because we’ve never had it. The league’s never had it.”
Indeed, a sizeable majority of matches are slated Saturdays, with a few Sundays and Wednesdays on the docket. Nearly all the games will kick off at 7:30 p.m. local time, with pregame coverage beginning a half hour beforehand. Importantly, the deal also includes no blackouts and no international restrictions, freeing up anyone from around the world to subscribe and watch. For that, there was a fair amount of rejoicing among MLS players.
“That’s massive,” Kaye said. “I actually didn’t know how difficult it was for Canadians to watch MLS games. My mom was always messaging me, ‘Ah! I can’t get your game!’
“It never really crossed my mind that a partnership like this would really alleviate a lot of stresses for so many of our fans, our families, our friends – and for the players, too, because we watch MLS all the time. So it’s a good feeling to know that the league understands these issues.”
Acosta echoed the sentiment, saying that having every match on TV, as well as being easy to find, should raise the profile of MLS.
“Having the Apple partnership is a step in the right direction,’’ Acosta said. “My favorite part is having the sport clean in one place. I think it’s huge for the league and sport in the U.S.”
The MLS Season Pass app will also include a so-called whip-around show like “NFL RedZone” and CBS Sports’ “Golazo Show” to allow fans to keep up with multiple matches at once. The show will show live look-ins from every match and “will feature every goal, penalty kick and big save” according to a statement. A wrap-up show will close each night.
There’s room for future additions as well.
“I think there’s got to be a full studio type show that is highlight driven, analysis driven, something that you would see on any other network that’s pertaining to the league that has all the resources, that has multiple voices, I think that’s got to be there,” Twellman said on Tuesday.
Since the deal was announced last summer, it’s been a busy and hectic ramp-up, with industry experts curious – and, yes, maybe even a tad judgmental – about whether Apple and MLS can really overcome the massive technical hurdles to have the slick broadcasts they envision by the first slate of games on Feb. 25.
Is this fledgling production operation ready for the epic undertaking of broadcasting every match in English and Spanish (and for matches involving Canadian teams, commentary in French)? Will fans really fork it over to watch games behind a paywall? Are there enough top-notch production trucks and technical staff in place to handle the complex tasks behind a high-quality product? As one seasoned industry professional estimated to The Athletic not long ago, the league might be sinking as much as $80 million to $100 million into production costs in 2023 alone.
Twellman, after 11 years at ESPN/ABC, said his faith comes from the massive resources and ferocious planning Apple has thrown at broadcasts from the start.
“I’ll give you a real simple one: We asked for a certain number of cameras in order to cover the game and (Apple) said, ‘Sure,’’’ Twellman said. “Like, I don’t think people understand how different that is. When you say, ‘Hey, we’d like X number of cameras,’ and there was no rebuttal?
“For so long, we’ve been fighting for these little things. I’ve been on a soapbox for so long. Literally, MLS has just relied on the two hours they get on national TV.”
(Photos courtesy MLS)
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