This past June, Major League Soccer and Apple agreed to a 10-year broadcast deal that begins with the 2023 season. As a result, every MLS regular season game will be nationally streamed through Apple rather than through local broadcast channels such as the YES Network and MSG Networks in a similar fashion to the way that the National Football League covers games.
This will all happen through a subscription service called MLS Season Pass, which is slightly different from watching those games aired for free on Apple TV+. Season ticket holders have the benefit of accessing the service for free via their annual package, but most fans will have to pay for subscription to the service and access to the games, most of which will kick off at 7:30 p.m. local time. People who currently have Apple TV+ will pay $12.99 per month and $79 per season for the service while those without it must pay $14.99 per month and $99 per season.
While I look forward to using this streaming service throughout the season, the new system will cause seismic change to how people watch live sports games. Instead of changing the channel through a traditional remote and cable network, a consumer can open their laptop or use the powerful streaming of the Amazon Fire Stick and they are one step closer to streaming the game.
The best part about the new streaming service is that there will be no broadcasting blackouts, which means that students at the University of Connecticut, to use an example, can stream the New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. One of the best ways to grow the game is to have young kids watch the team(s) closest to where they live, and getting rid of the regional blackout is going to help sustain the league and the overall sport for generations.
Media blackouts will not be the only way that MLS Season Pass grows the game and generates more fans, however. On top of airing MLS Cup Playoff matches, the subscription service will air live contests from MLS Next Pro and MLS NEXT. MLS NEXT is a youth soccer league with programs for all ages from under-13 to under-19 while MLS Next Pro is the Minor League Baseball of MLS. The future is bright after the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s performance in the 2022 World Cup, and live coverage of these developmental leagues will help sustain the success of soccer in the US for generations.
Even as the landscape changes regarding how people watch live sports, traditional mediums of viewership still need to be considered and games should still be aired on cable television channels. A study from Techjury.net found that 56% of Americans watch satellite television and 95.1 million consumers (about 29% of the US’ population) will have cut the cord by the end of 2023. While these numbers show a rapid decline in the use of cable services as more people transition to streaming services, it is still important to air these games on the television channels because not everyone has can afford or have access to streaming services. Despite this contract, MLS still has agreements with Fox and TSN in place that allow them to air a handful of games throughout the season.
MLS is not the first league to dive into having their games broadcasted through streaming services, they’re just the first to have most of them exclusively aired on one. In 2021, the NFL finalized an 11-year media rights deal that included making Amazon Prime Video the exclusive broadcast network of all Thursday Night Football games through 2033. As a result, Al Michaels made the transition from calling Sunday Night Football games on NBC to Thursday Night Football games with Kirk Herbstreit in a flurry of broadcasting moves across the league. Major League Baseball has also joined the mix as Apple TV+ covers two games every Friday night as part of a seven-year deal while providing fans with a bunch of interesting statistics and covers one Sunday game starting at 11 a.m. on NBC Peacock.
MLS Season Pass could go above and beyond the streaming service standards set by those leagues despite their smaller league-wide fanbase. It does not have to do with the broadcasting team calling the game or the product on the field, but it has more to do with the fans that make up the league’s overall support. Because MLS is less popular than most North American leagues, their fanbase is going to be made up more of loyal soccer fans who move around in the safe-standing support sections rather than bandwagon fans who stop supporting a team once they sink to the bottom of the standings.
Looking at the state of media rights deals across the major professional sports, the National Basketball Association’s deals with ESPN and TNT expires after the 2024-25 season while the National Hockey League’s contracts (with the same companies) are good until 2028. While talks around NHL coverage will not happen until at least 2025, Amazon is in the mix to compete for the NBA’s next big media rights deal if TNT and ESPN do not reach an extension. Whether they receive those rights or not is to be determined, but there is no doubt that their names will show up in media rights discussions with professional leagues over the next few years.
Trends in the overall consumer market have caused leagues to look to new broadcasting companies to get the most users to watch their product with companies like Amazon and Apple at the forefront of all negotiations. Either way, MLS Season Pass is going to be the first subscription service mentioned in all future conversations about how the coverage of sports transitioned from cable to streaming services.