MLS, Apple announces details of new deal: What to make of pricing, later kickoff times

On Wednesday, Major League Soccer and Apple gave further details about their new broadcast agreement which will kick off with the 2023 season. The league and tech giant announced a 10-year pact this summer, with Apple paying $2.5 billion for the rights to show every MLS match. Here’s what you need to know about today’s update:

  • Starting Feb. 1, fans can subscribe to MLS Season Pass on the Apple TV app for $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.
  • 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.
  • Nearly all matches (slated for Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a few Sundays under consideration) will kick off at 7:30 pm local time, with pregame coverage beginning a half hour beforehand.
  • MLS will produce a whip-around show akin to “NFL RedZone” and CBS Sports’ “Golazo Show” to allow fans to keep up with multiple matches at once.
  • The opening weekend of the season will be entirely available for all to view in front of the paywall.

What we already knew

On Oct. 27, The Athletic reported several key details about the ongoing planning efforts for the nascent production operation. The league has interviewed over 200 play-by-play voices and color commentators as they look to build English, Spanish and French broadcast teams. If you don’t like the league’s commentary assignment, viewers can switch to the home team’s radio feed for a more local perspective. 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 pm until 1 am ET.

A significant number of matches could live in front of the MLS-specific paywall, too. A document distributed to clubs in August indicated there could be six midweek matches and four Saturday fixtures available in front of the paywall. MLS is also expecting to announce linear broadcast partnerships (with specific eyes on ESPN/ABC, TUDN and Fox given their history), and a source told The Athletic the league expects to have a significantly higher number of games available for free in 2023 than at any other point in league history.

According to the document, the plan is for the MLS All-Star Game to air only on Apple TV+ and on Apple’s MLS streaming service — in that scenario, the game would not be available linearly or in front of the Apple TV paywall. The league would like the MLS Cup final to air concurrently on a linear network and in front of the paywall on Apple TV through at least 2026.

Other MLS playoff games will air on Apple TV’s streaming service and, most likely, on a linear platform. The league is still attempting to work out a simulcast arrangement with linear partners like ESPN, Fox and Univision in the United States and TSN and TVA Sports in Canada. Where exactly playoff games will air will depend on the specifics of those potential simulcast deals.

Teams will also have the ability to generate their own content to tailor to local fan bases, which will live in the Apple TV app alongside national match replays and league-generated content.

What we learned on Wednesday

First, and most relevant, was pricing. Once the service launches on Feb. 1, fans can subscribe to MLS Season Pass on the Apple TV app for $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. It’s unclear how many screens of simultaneous viewing will be allowed with a subscription, a key detail for families and opportunistic mooches like myself alike.

The reiterated fact that a subscription will be included for season-ticket holders is a necessary boost to encourage teams’ diehard fans to test the new platform from its launch. Having the opening weekend of the season in front of the paywall will also give a chance to advertise to non-season ticket members and more casual viewers, but could give a damning first impression if the operation isn’t up to standard immediately. While the $99 price point may seem steep, it’s comparable to the league’s previous venture. Before switching to ESPN+, MLS Live offered all matches for $79 a year — except for those pesky local blackouts. Paying roughly $12 a month to watch every MLS team but your favorite was a tough ask. With local blackouts no longer factoring in the new format, it appears to be a market value price to keep up with an increasingly relevant league even if you don’t have a seat in a team’s stadium.

Still, some will understandably bridle against the increase over the previous price point with ESPN+. The ability to bundle that sports service (which includes far more soccer leagues as well as many other sports to add further bang to one’s subscription bucks) with Hulu and Disney+ made it an easily digestible monthly rate given the content on offer. Granted, ESPN+ featured local blackouts, which were the bane of fans on the go and in-market writers alike. Whether or not the increase is clearly justified will depend on the content generated by the league and its clubs to pad a full slate of viewable matches.

Perhaps more curious to me was the decision to bump back kickoff times. While the start time of matches fluctuated wildly throughout the season, the baseline window was a 7:08 pm local kickoff to ensure matches finished by 9 pm (barring scandal or injury, of course). With games beginning at 7:30 pm, MLS has a more obvious window for pregame shows but will cut further into the evening — a relevant consideration for families as well as viewers with strict sleep schedules.

Initial reaction among fans has been incredibly mixed (as evidenced by the quote tweets and mentions here). Some see it as a fair rate given full access to MLS games and the promise of additional content. Others see it as a cash grab to make up for a massive rights agreement by a subscription service which already charges a decent monthly rate — the dreaded paywall within a paywall.

Wherever you land, MLS has two and a half months to ready the platform before it launches in February. As is the case when jerseys are revealed, it’ll be easier to decide if it’s worth your money once you see it in action.

(Photo: Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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