MLS, Apple announce details of new deal: what about pricing, later start times

On Wednesday, Major League Soccer and Apple provided more details about their new broadcasting deal that kicks off 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 screen every MLS match. Here’s what you need to know about today’s update:

  • Starting February 1, fans can subscribe to MLS Season Pass in the Apple TV app for $14.99 per month during the season or $99 per season, and Apple TV+ subscribers can sign up for a special price of $12.99 per month and $79 per season.
  • Season ticket holders of an MLS club receive an annual subscription with their package. Apple expects between 300,000 and 400,000 subscribers to fall into this bucket.
  • Nearly all games (scheduled for Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a few Sundays in consideration) start at 7:30 PM local time, with pregame coverage starting half an hour before.
  • MLS will produce a revolving show similar to “NFL RedZone” and CBS Sports’ “Golazo Show,” allowing fans to watch multiple games at once.
  • The opening weekend of the season will be in full view of the paywall for all to see.

What we already knew

on October 27 The athletic reported several key details about ongoing planning efforts for the burgeoning production operation. The league has interviewed more than 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 commentary, viewers can switch to the home team’s radio feed for a more local perspective. Match windows include a half-hour national pregame show, a match-specific primer at each stadium, a halftime show, and a national post-match show. Given the number of time zones that need to be covered, there is usually coverage on game nights from 7pm to 1am ET.

A significant number of matches could also live for the MLS-specific paywall. A document distributed to clubs in August indicated that six midweek games and four Saturday games could be available for the paywall. MLS also expects to announce linear broadcast partnerships (with specific eyes on ESPN/ABC, TUDN and Fox given their histories), 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 time in the league’s history.

According to the document, the MLS All-Star Game is only intended to air on Apple TV+ and Apple’s MLS streaming service – in that scenario the game would not be available linearly or for the Apple TV paywall. The league wants the MLS Cup Final to be simulcast on a linear network and paywall on Apple TV until at least 2026.

Other MLS playoff games will air on the Apple TV streaming service and, most likely, on a linear platform. The league is still trying to work out a simulcast with linear partners such as ESPN, Fox and Univision in the United States and TSN and TVA Sports in Canada. Exactly where playoff games air will depend on the specifics of those potential simulcast deals.

Teams will also have the option to generate their own content tailored to local fanbases, which will be featured in the Apple TV app alongside national replays and league-generated content.

What we learned on Wednesday

First, and most pertinent, was pricing. Once the service launches on February 1, fans will be able to subscribe to MLS Season Pass in the Apple TV app for $14.99 per month during the season or $99 per season, and Apple TV+ subscribers can sign up for a special price of $12.99 per month and $79 per season. It’s unclear how many screens can be viewed simultaneously with a subscription, an important detail for families and opportunistic louts like me.

The repeated fact that a subscription will be included for season ticket holders is a necessary incentive to encourage teams’ diehard fans to test the new platform from launch. Having the opening weekend of the season hit the paywall also gives you the chance to advertise to non-season ticket members and more casual viewers, but it can make a devastating first impression if the operation isn’t right the first time. While the $99 price seems high, it’s comparable to the competition’s previous venture. Before switching to ESPN+, MLS Live offered all games for $79 a year, except for those pesky local blackouts. Paying about $12 a month to watch every MLS team, but your favorite was a tough question. With local blackouts no longer factoring in the new format, it seems like a market price to keep up in an increasingly relevant league, even if you don’t have a seat in a team’s stadium.

Still, some will understandably hold back the increase over the previous price with ESPN+. The ability to bundle that sports service (which covers many more football leagues and many other sports to add even more money to your subscription fee) with Hulu and Disney+ made it an easily digestible monthly fare considering the content on offer. Admittedly, ESPN+ had local blackouts, which has been the bane of mobile fans and writers in the market alike. Whether or not the increase is clearly justified depends on the content generated by the league and its clubs to populate a full list of viewable matches.

Perhaps even more curious to me was the decision to reverse kick-off times. While the start time of games fluctuated wildly throughout the season, the baseline was a local kick-off at 7:08 PM to ensure games were finished by 9 PM (barring scandal or injury, of course). With games starting at 7:30pm, MLS has a more obvious window for pregame shows, but will be cut further into the evening – a pertinent consideration for both families and viewers with strict sleep schedules.

Initial fan reactions were incredibly mixed (as evidenced by the quote tweets and mentions here). Some see it as a reasonable rate given full access to MLS games and the promise of additional content. Others see it as a money grab to make up for a huge rights deal by a subscription service that already charges a decent monthly rate – the dreaded paywall within a paywall.

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

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

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