Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Photo: PA

Well, someone was going to.

Other leagues have dipped a toe (dip that toe, man), like MLB’s Friday Night Ratings Fest interrupted by the occasional baseball on Apple, or the NHL’s Game Exclusive on ESPN+ and Hulu this season. There’s the NFL putting the weary look of Troy Aikman on Thursday nights on Amazon. But nobody went all hog, until MLS and Apple today announced that starting next spring, the confusing-but-lovable American Football League will put every game on its schedule on Apple TV. This also includes the League Cup with Liga MX starting next year, which leaders hope will be Apple’s main draw.

First, the dirty profit. MLS will receive $250 million a year from Apple for the rights to each match. That’s a pretty serious increase from his current $90 million per season of ESPN, Fox, and Univision’s stew. That’s still a far cry from what even the NHL gets ($625 million combined a year from Turner and ESPN), but it’s still up the hill from where they were.

However, if you expect this to increase salary caps and MLS roster salaries and possibly attract a few more names from Europe, just slow your roll there, skippy. MLS opts for a style of coverage closer to the NFL, that is, without local broadcast teams. Which means they’re moving all of the production for every MLS and League Cup game in-house, which means setting up their own production company, which is going to be kind of a business. We’ll have to see how much of that extra $160 million per season actually goes to the teams. But it will take more than the change that falls on the ground after the transaction.

This will bother some MLS fans, who have come to like broadcast teams associated with their home club and presentation style. The other inconvenience MLS fans might find will come whenever Apple announces the cost of this special subscription on their service. Some games will just appear on Apple TV, like Friday Night MLB games, but the vast majority will require a subscription in the Apple TV app. At this time, MLS fans can get most out-of-market games on ESPN+ at no additional cost. And football fans probably already have ESPN+ because that’s where the Bundesliga and La Liga live, as well as England’s cup competitions. There’s also the bundling with Hulu and Disney, which people want. Apple has none of that, and fans won’t be thrilled to go from paying a pittance for ESPN+ to the ransom Apple will demand (and you can be sure it’ll be more than a six-pack per month) . Hawking their Ted Lasso credibility won’t be enough.

MLS has also gone to great lengths to clarify that whatever membership package is, it will be free for season ticket holders. Which sounds good on the face of it, except that MLS also announced that starting next season, they’re going to adjust the schedule so that almost all games take place on Saturday nights, with a few Wednesday nights dotted around. This will allow MLS to produce a Red Zone like show on those nights, dancing at every event of every MLS game, and that sort of thing found an audience on CBS last season with their Golazo! spectacle during the Champions League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference. It also makes things look like the NFL, which is every league’s dream, with regulated start times for games across the country. However, it doesn’t do a season ticket holder much good to have free access to Apple’s MLS channel when, you know, they’re going to be at their home team’s game half the time while all other matches are in progress.

The kicker here is that the $250 million per season figure is a base. That could increase, depending on how many subscribers MLS and Apple can pull for it. MLS Matters on his younger fan base, used to stepping out of traditional channels for its sports coverage, is flocking to the new app/subscription. Still, the MLS TV ratings (where ESPN and Fox are still much easier to access) have been adjoining outbuilding, so where they get the confidence that more people will sign up to pay more for a product that’s still less than what league fans watch on Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons is something of a mystery. We should all have such bravado. There have been no reports of the exact membership requirements that would increase the amount MLS receives from this deal.

Although MLS and commissioner Don Garber announce this as a landmark, it’s not like the league is spoiled for choice. While ESPN, Fox and Univision are still in talks to get MLS games to also be on Apple, none of them have knocked on Garber’s door to renew their deal, given these ratings. In that sense, getting $2.5 billion over the next 10 years, at least, could be considered a coup.

If indeed the league will benefit even more from this deal (if subscriptions on Apple are above expectations or whatever the metrics), then they will be under serious pressure to release a product that people want to pay for (or Apple to offer it as a reasonable price, but wouldn’t jump on one foot waiting for that to happen). But it can go both ways. Ideally, MLS would relax its Byzantine roster and salary cap rules to allow more teams to spend their money as they see fit and create more teams that stand out from each other. As far as we know, MLS could get even fancier, although that’s not really Garber’s style since he took over.

The League Cup is the real wildcard here, as MLS is unlikely to make any drastic rule changes that will liven up the regular season too much (14 playoff teams can make the season starting in July on some kind of motorcade). When paired with Liga MX, still the most-watched league in the United States, the hope is that the eyes that watch Club America or Cruz Azul meet on television will also be drawn to MLS, after having seen them on the same ground. However, Liga MX fans are used to getting their live coverage on Univision or Telemundo, and they may be just as reluctant as others to sign up for a service to watch teams they don’t care about. don’t care in a tournament that for Liga MX teams, it might not amount to much more than a pre-season warm-up. This is hardly a guarantee.

Still, MLS wasn’t really going to move forward through the traditional paths, and to become something more, it had to be progressive and take risks. It certainly is, although it comes with a nice backstop of a quarter billion dollars each season. But if they don’t nail down production, if the product on the pitch doesn’t improve, it could lead to the league being even more out of the public eye, tucked away in a corner of the Roku or the Firestick of somebody. The money is nice, the risk taking admirable, but they still have some fiery hoops to negotiate before it’s a hit.