Simple and easy for fans.
If there was one main element that struck me after learning more about MLS’s 10-year media deal with Apple, it was its simplicity for its fans. There were a number of other components and questions that I’ll address, but I kept coming back to this focus by both parties to make the overall viewing experience better. I don’t know if that was in the minds of the deal architects when they started contemplating their media rights nearly five years ago — but that’s what Don Garber, Gary Stevenson and Seth Bacon achieved.
What do I mean? Well, in building an all-inclusive global streaming service, it’s offering a very simple, direct way to consume MLS matches — one click and you’ve got access to all MLS content. If you’re a season-ticket holder, for the games you don’t attend, you will have a subscription to the new streaming service as part of your package. And it will all come with the premium experience that Apple is known for. We have all seen what Apple has done around Apple News and Apple Music in just a few short years, and if you’re affiliated with MLS, you have to be encouraged by the promise of a new service that will be built upon superior technology and the clean, ease of use of Apple. There’s a lot of potential here to be excited about.
MLS needs more fans, and the league needs more people to try the product. If the product offers a premium, valuable experience they like, users will become more engaged and possibly avid fans. Apple has a lot of capital, and there’s something to be said for being important to one of the biggest companies in the world that is adept at building subscription products. To be embedded in Apple products, to be part of the Apple experience, to benefit from the promotional power of Apple, to be connected and have a rub-off effect from “Ted Lasso” and other loosely associated programming should all have an upside. Though it could hurt shorter-term awareness for a growing league, there’s something to be said for a league whose demographics are more digital-first being the first to go in this direction.
There are a few other elements that I felt were intriguing:
First, MLS executives know the value of appointment scheduling — Garber, Stevenson and Bacon all came from leagues that had consistent competition windows, which viewers and fans came to expect, which increases viewership and engagement. The league’s decision to shift its games to the Wednesday and Saturday night windows is incredibly significant to grow the fan base and viewership. Right now, MLS games are placed in various windows and days. But consistent Saturday night games for both season-ticket holders and TV viewers can’t be overlooked. I live in Charlotte, and before I go to 5 p.m. Saturday night Mass, I witness thousands of Charlotte FC fans mingling through the city before games in their Ally kits, virtually taking over the uptown city center. It’s been impressive to see, and regularly scheduled Saturday night games will allow this tradition to build. OK, consistent scheduling may not be rocket science, but it’s not easy and it’s an overdue, smart and significant move by the league.
Second, that leads to the regular slate of MLS programming, games from East Coast to West Coast all supported by pregame, halftime and postgame shows and a whip-around show for the first time. This doesn’t even factor in all of the other indirect programming that comes from being in the Apple universe; add it all up and it should be a real promotional and programming upside that has been lacking for the league with its previous partners.
Third, MLS is taking over control and production of its broadcasts — which is no insignificant feat. MLS already produces games as an entity, but more than 20% of its games and the ones with the biggest distribution were produced by its partners, who surely know what they are doing. But the league believes it will produce a better product, with a consistent look, feel and brand.
In the end, I come back to the fact that MLS is betting on itself. Of course, I heard from those who have concerns about certain aspects of the agreement, and that it was the one on the table MLS had to take because its window to get a deal for next year was closing. Perhaps some of that is true. And we will have to see how all this plays out. But let’s acknowledge that MLS is a first mover in going all in with the one of the world’s most ubiquitous and successful companies. This deal could eventually change the way fans consume sports, and while it’s likely not the one some would have suggested for a league still wrestling for exposure, it could be one that sets the standard for the future. And it may be because of its simplicity for the fans.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.