MLS selects Apple for exclusive global media rights in 10-year deal

MLS has sold all of its global media rights exclusively to Apple, becoming the first major US sports league to go all-in with a digital media company. MLS is still negotiating with linear television networks, including ESPN and Fox, to broadcast select games. However, those games wouldn’t be exclusive to the streamer; they would simulcast with Apple. MLS executives said Apple is not paying a direct rights fee for the rights package. Instead, Apple is paying a minimum guarantee that sources say is worth $250 million a year starting in ’23. MLS will start bringing in more revenue as Apple sells subscriptions to a newly launched MLS subscription offering. “What’s different here is that media companies traditionally pay rights fees and you sell advertising,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “This is a partnership. And the core of this partnership is a subscription business that we will build together and we will take a guarantee against the revenue that will be achieved in the subscription business. Then we pass on those guarantees, we’ll have the opportunity to make more money, which is really unique in sports media.”

Pictured (l to r): MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Apple VP/Services Eddy Cue in NYApple Inc.

IT MAY SIGNAL A CHANGE IN THE SPORT: The deal potentially represents a sea change in sports media, as leagues and conferences have spent the better part of a decade trying to convince deep-pocketed digital companies like Apple to invest more in sports content. Apple, which recently inked a deal with MLB, has been involved in numerous discussions over the past few years, but this marks its biggest move yet in sports. “There’s never been a league where there’s a single place where you can watch every single game,” said Apple vice president/services Eddy Cue. The terms of Apple’s MLS deal will have an unspecified number of games available for free through the AppleTV app. Apple’s streaming service, AppleTV+, will also have a larger number of games. The key component of this deal, however, is a subscription service that will have every MLS game without interruption.

PACKAGE INCLUDES EVERY GAME: The yet-to-be-named streaming service will live inside the Apple TV app and include every game, including those that were previously part of national television packages on ESPN, Fox and Univision and those that were broadcast locally under deals individual clubs. The newly expanded League Cup featuring every MLS and Liga MX club will also be included in the service, as will select MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT matches. MLS and Apple executives said they have not yet developed a price point for the service, but all MLS season ticket holders will have access to the package at no additional charge. MLS will produce all of its games, something Garber said will require a “significant” investment, but will ensure consistency across the league and allow for more technological innovation.

The yet-to-be-named streaming service inside the Apple TV app will have every game, including those previously part of national TV packagesGary Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

APPEAL AGREEMENT FOR APPLE: MLS planted the seeds for this kind of sweeping deal in recent years by instructing each of its teams to ensure that their local broadcast deals expire by the end of the ’22 season. The fact that MLS could offer all of its games without geographic restrictions or digs made the package particularly attractive to Apple, Cue said. Another draw for Apple: MLS promotes its young, tech-savvy fan base. Survey data shows that the average MLS fan is 39.6 years old and that Generation Z and Millennials make up 58% of its fan base. Apple’s MLS deal will begin next season, coinciding with an MLS schedule restructuring that will see most regular season games played on Saturday nights. Having a series of Saturday night games with different start times will allow the league to offer a show similar to the NFL Red Zone through the new streaming service and Apple TV+. There will still be some midweek games, mostly on Wednesday evenings. Some matches may be played in other time periods based on stadium conflicts or linear television scheduling.

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