MLS's Apple TV deal: Here's everything we know about the $2.5 billion agreement

MLS’s Apple TV deal: Here’s everything we know about the $2.5 billion agreement

Major League Soccer on Tuesday announced a groundbreaking new broadcast deal with Apple that, according to industry sources, will see the tech giant pay the league a minimum of $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.

As MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a press conference to discuss the deal, Tuesday was “a historic day” for the league, which is set for a substantial increase in broadcast revenue and a new partnership with what Garber called “one of the most innovative and customer-focused companies in the entire world.”

“We think our league is perfectly positioned for the next evolution of how people watch live sports,” Garber said. “And with this new partnership with Apple … we’re gonna deliver (our fans) every match anywhere, anytime, anywhere around the world without any restrictions or any blackouts.”

The agreement is among the first of its kind in professional sports, with Apple set to broadcast every single MLS match from 2023-2032 on its Apple TV platform. It’s a novel deal, but it’s also a bit confusing. We’ve done our best to cut through the particulars and answer the most important questions regarding the agreement and what it means for MLS fans and the future of how they’ll be able to watch the league.

What’s the basic outline of the deal? Will fans have to buy an Apple TV+ subscription in order to watch their local team? 

Apple will show every single MLS regular season and Leagues Cup match starting in 2023 and continuing for the following 10 seasons. The deal will also include select games from MLS Next Pro, MLS’s developmental league, and MLS Next, its academy circuit.

Under the structure of the deal, there will be no local blackouts for any games, all of which are currently expected to be available worldwide on Apple TV.

The company will build an MLS streaming service within the Apple TV app that will house all MLS matches and related content. Fans will not need to subscribe to Apple TV+ in order to subscribe to the MLS streaming service; it will be a standalone service within the Apple TV ecosystem.

The exact price of the MLS streaming service is yet to be determined.

Additionally, existing Apple TV+ subscribers who do not subscribe to the MLS streaming service will be able to watch a selection of MLS and Leagues Cup matches at no additional cost. A limited number of matches will be available completely free to all fans, regardless of whether they subscribe to either Apple TV+ or the MLS streaming service. MLS full-season ticket holders will also be able to access the MLS streaming service at no additional charge.

Importantly, fans will not need an Apple TV device in order to watch the MLS streaming service. It will be able to be accessed from essentially any device — phone, smart TV, computer — that can connect to the internet.

Apple TV matches will not only be broadcast in English. A source with knowledge of the deal confirmed to The Athletic on Tuesday that every MLS and Leagues Cup game on the Apple TV platform will be broadcast in Spanish, as well. Select matches, mostly involving CF Montreal, will also air in French. The league also plans to show matches in Portuguese by 2025.

One other key aspect of the deal: MLS will produce all games and other content that air on the MLS streaming service on Apple TV.

Local broadcasts of MLS matches will no longer continue. Once the current deal kicks in, matches will not air on regional sports networks or other television partners that individual clubs have worked with over the years. Apple TV games will also only be called by one team of commentators. In the current deal, locally broadcast games are called by two sets of commentators, one specific to each team.

The league is planning to hire between 10 and 14 broadcast teams to call those matches. MLS will also hire producers, directors, other talent and more broadcast staff to produce every game. Sources said the league could also build out facilities to facilitate that production, including a studio for the pregame, halftime and post-game shows that will accompany every single match. MLS is planning to air all games in 1080p, which is a step up from the 720p and 1080i of many of its current broadcasts.

Fans who want to listen to a local voice will have the option to mute the Apple TV commentary team and listen to their club’s local radio broadcast in the MLS streaming service.

Will games still air on networks like ESPN and Univision? 

MLS made clear on Tuesday that the league remains in negotiations with linear TV partners in both the U.S. and Canada.

Sources with knowledge of the talks but who were not authorized to speak about them publicly told The Athletic that the league is in negotiations with ESPN and Univision. Those two networks and Fox have held the U.S. national TV rights for MLS since the 2015 season.

An ESPN spokesperson provided this statement to The Athletic: “We continue to have a great relationship with MLS and are proud of the role we’ve played in helping grow the league and the sport in the U.S.”

The sources said the league is close to a four-year deal with ESPN for a deal that would put between 23 and 25 regular season games per season on the ESPN family of networks. Under the framework of that deal, ESPN and Apple TV would alternate which network broadcasts MLS Cup over the next four years. The ESPN family of networks is set to broadcast 34 regular season games in 2022.

One source said an ESPN deal could still be weeks away, however.

If completed, sources said ESPN would pay a fraction of the $35 million they currently pay annually for the rights, in part because this package would not include U.S. Soccer Federation properties, as the current deal does, but also because any ESPN games would be simulcast on the MLS app on Apple TV. ESPN did not bid to keep the local MLS game package on its ESPN+ platform, where it has lived the past several years, according to sources.

It’s also worth noting that MLS ratings on ESPN have remained underwhelming, even despite incremental growth over the last decade. ESPN is averaging 292,500 viewers for its 2022 MLS broadcasts across its family of networks through 14 games in 2022. Their full-season average in 2021 was 273,300.

It is not clear whether those linear partners would produce the games or whether they would take a global feed from MLS, the way many global broadcasters take a feed from the Premier League. Multiple sources expect that ESPN would prefer to produce their own games, then provide that feed to be simulcast on Apple. One source expressed skepticism that Univision would want to do that; they said that the network would likely take the clean feed produced by MLS and then use its own talent and graphics on top of that feed for its broadcasts.

Univision is in negotiations not only to air MLS games, but also the Leagues Cup package. The sources familiar with negotiations have told The Athletic repeatedly that the network is far more interested in that tournament than it is in MLS regular season matches, but that it will likely end up with inventory from both.

Sports Business Journal reported on Tuesday that MLS also remains in discussions with Fox to broadcast games beyond the expiration of the current deal.

A source said that the league also informed Canadian broadcasters TSN and TVA about the Apple deal in the hours before the announcement. The source said that the league would like to continue discussions with those networks about carrying their broadcast agreements past 2022.

What is the money breakdown? How is it different from past TV deals? 

Apple will pay MLS a minimum of $250 million per year in each of the next 10 years. If the number of people who subscribe to the MLS streaming service crosses a certain threshold, Apple will begin sharing subscription revenue with the league. The specific number of subscribers needed to cross that threshold and the exact cut of revenue Apple would share with MLS have not been made public.

Between that and deals with its linear TV partners, multiple sources expect MLS’s media rights income to end up somewhere just shy of $300 million per year.

Under the current domestic media rights deal, MLS receives between $60 and $65 million per year combined from ESPN, Fox and Univision for its television rights. The U.S. Soccer Federation also receives about $25 million from the networks as part of the deal, which was negotiated by MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing (SUM). MLS also takes in an unknown amount of revenue from Canadian broadcasters and a small amount of additional revenue from international networks.

The terms of this new deal will also have an impact on the salary cap for the first time in MLS history through a revenue share agreement with the MLS Players’ Association in the collective bargaining agreement.

Per terms of the CBA, in 2023 and 2024, players will receive 12.5 percent of the net increase in media revenue for anything more than $100 million above the league’s 2022 media compensation. The players’ media revenue share will jump to 25 percent in 2025 through the expiration of the CBA following the 2027 season. That money goes directly into the salary cap and general allocation money.

But MLS will spend substantially on production costs in this deal with Apple. Industry sources expect the league to spend around $60 million on producing games each season, with additional costs in the next year or two associated with starting-up its own production arm. Those costs will have an effect on the revenue share agreement in the CBA.

If, for example, MLS winds up around $290 million for its media rights, that is approximately $125 million more than the $165 million mark where revenue share kicks in. But that is gross revenue. MLS will deduct the production costs under this new Apple deal before calculating any revenue share. That should take a substantial bite out of the cut given to the players.

Just as the production costs impact the math on revenue share with players, it similarly will impact how this deal impacts each team’s finances. When the previous broadcast deal began in 2015, there were 20 teams in the league, which meant each team got around $3.25 million in average annual broadcast revenue. That number dropped to $2.3 million with the current 28 teams. Club sources have told The Athletic over the years that most teams spend a portion of that revenue on production costs for their local broadcasts.

With the league set to welcome its 29th team in St. Louis next year and expected to add Las Vegas as its 30th club sometime in the relatively near future, the average annual broadcast take-home for each club should be somewhere around $7.5 million per year. That’s broadcast revenue of slightly less than $10 million less $2 million per team in production costs and an additional amount of revenue shared with the MLSPA.

That’s a really significant jump, but probably not one that will enable a massive step forward for MLS in the short-term.


MLS commissioner Don Garber, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Apple’s senior vice president of Services Eddy Cue. (Apple Inc. / USA TODAY Sports)

Will Apple TV provide other programming aside from the games themselves? 

As mentioned above, every match on Apple TV will include MLS-produced pregame, halftime and post-game shows. In the press conference announcing the deal, MLS executive Gary Stevenson said MLS teams will also have the ability to produce local pregame and post-game shows for their games, if they choose. Those local pre- and post-game shows would precede and follow the respective national shows.

Perhaps the most interesting development, however, is the addition of a new whiparound show that will air for up to six hours each Saturday night during the season. Details of what that broadcast will look like are still to be determined, but previous examples on FS1 during Decision Day and on ESPN+ during the U.S. Open Cup this season have featured studio hosts, analysts, interviews with guests and live look-ins at different matches. Those shows have mostly been well-received. The new whiparound broadcast should also have a good chance at a positive reception; it’ll certainly be a more digestible way to take in a league with as many teams as MLS.

Stevenson also noted that the new deal will allow MLS to make its schedule more predictable. Most teams currently play most of their matches on Saturdays, but there’s a lack of consistency with kickoff times and with the days that midweek matches are contested. With the new agreement, almost every match will be played on Wednesday or Saturday nights. Exceptions will be made due to specific broadcast windows requested by linear partners or because of stadium availability issues.

“When you think about our schedule today, we’ve had, in this year alone, 63 different start day-start time combinations. And so it’s really hard for our fans to kind of understand when the games are starting, whether they’re a fan going to the stadium or whether they’re a fan watching the broadcast,” Stevenson said. “You can imagine what a Saturday night’s gonna look like (in the new deal). It’s almost like Decision Day every single Saturday night, where we’re in and out of games and there’s no more local restrictions. So the fan viewing experience is going to be very different.”

It sounds like MLS will produce all non-gameday content, as well, though the league feels that the deal with Apple will enhance its ability to tell stories, highlight stars and create conversations. MLS has long struggled to break through in those narrative areas, in part because its national broadcast partners, particularly on the English-language side, don’t give much attention to the league outside of their two or two-and-a-half-hour game broadcasts. That storytelling element is a critical part of the deal from the perspective of MLS.

“That part of it is very, very, very important to us on the fan creation and development side,” Stevenson said. “Imagine if we sign a star player from Colombia. Immediately, immediately, we have the ability to serve content to those fans in Colombia of that particular player in the Apple global distribution system, whether it’s Apple News, Apple Health and Fitness, Apple Watches, Apple Music, all of those different areas we expect to be integrated in and go forward with with Apple. So, to me, when you think about what are the intangibles here and why does this really make the most sense, it makes the most sense because we have that ability to distribute content.”

Why did Apple do this? 

It’s a pertinent question, given the amount of money Apple is paying MLS and the paltry current state of the league’s television ratings. And it may come down to something as simple as this: Apple has way more money than most other companies and wants to get into sports.

Their deal with MLS provides a cheaper way to bring in a league as a partner than it would for a similarly- wide-ranging deal with any of the other major U.S. men’s sports leagues. MLS often cites statistics that show that the league delivers a younger audience that prefers to stream sports and is a key demographic for many advertising partners.

There is also the continued belief that soccer is a growth property in the United States. The sport’s popularity continues to increase at a rate faster than MLS’, but the league has seen its own jumps. With the 2026 World Cup on the horizon, there is a chance that the sport and the league could be primed for a further bump in popularity.

“We’re committed to growing the sport of soccer with MLS we’re gonna make it easy for people to fall in love with MLS and root for their favorite clubs,” Apple executive Eddy Cue said in the press conference. “MLS is already on a tremendous trajectory as the fastest growing soccer league in the world. We think it’s gonna get even bigger as the World Cup comes to the US, Canada and Mexico.”

How does this deal compare to recent deals in other major leagues?

Towering above everything is the NFL, which last year inked a batch of 10- and 11-year deals worth a combined $113 billion over that time. They’re largely traditional TV rights pacts with the major networks, but Amazon agreed to pay about $1 billion annually for 15 Thursday Night Football games that it will stream digitally, with the games airing on local TV in the markets of the participating teams.

In hockey, the NHL in 2021 landed two seven-year deals with ESPN and Turner worth a combined $4.37 billion through 2028. The league’s 12-year, $4.9 billion Canadian TV rights contract with Rogers Communications ends in 2026.

The NBA, which currently gets $2.6 billion combined annually from ESPN and Turner Sports under contracts that began in 2016, is reportedly expected to seek fresh rights deals worth up to $75 billion in total. The current deals end after the 2024-25 season, and the next round of agreements could split linear and streaming rights or take some creative form to maximize value. The league also has lucrative overseas rights such as a $1.5 billion from China’s Tencent Holdings.

Baseball’s media rights are split among ESPN, Fox, and Turner Sports under deals signed in 2018-2020 and that run through 2028. They total $12.24 billion. Additionally, MLB this year inked an Apple TV streaming contract for Friday night doubleheaders that pays a reported $85 million in cash or advertising per season over seven years. NBC agreed to pay a reported $60 million over 2022-23 to air games on its paid Peacock steaming service.

Media rights deals between sports leagues and American broadcasters

League Annual revenue* Networks Start End

NFL

$10 billion

Amazon, CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC

2023

2033

NBA

$2.6 billion

ESPN, Turner

2016-17

2024-25

MLB

$1.75 billion

ESPN, FOX, TBS

2022

2028

NHL

$625 million

ESPN, Turner

2021-22

2027-28

NASCAR

$820 million

FOX, NBC

2015

2024

PGA

$700 million

CBS, ESPN, Golf Channel, NBC

2022

2030

College Football Playoff

$470 million

ESPN

2015-16

2025-26

Premier League

$450 million

NBC

2022-23

2027-28

La Liga

$175 million

ESPN

2021-22

2028-29

MLS

$90 million

ESPN, FOX, Univision

2015

2022

Serie A

$66.67 million

CBS

2021-22

2023-24

Bundesliga

$30 million

ESPN

2020-21

2025-26

*From U.S. national broadcasters

– Bill Shea

What do we know about international TV rights? 

MLS still has the option to negotiate a linear deal with international partners, but it does not sound like that’s a high priority at this time. If MLS doesn’t strike a deal with a linear partner in a given country, the league’s matches will only be available in that nation on Apple TV.

“That’s yet to be determined,” Stevenson said. “We are working on that plan with Apple. Similar to what we do in the United States and Canada, we’ve had conversations about other linear distribution, but our primary emphasis outside of the United States and Canada will be on the Apple platforms.”

What does a deal like this mean for European leagues? 

From a competition with them point of view? Nothing. MLS clubs doubling their media rights income sounds good – and hats will be doffed across the Atlantic – but this hardly means MLS teams are going to be poaching European talent, or even North or South American talent that European teams really want. This deal does not even get MLS sides up to what EFL Championship sides earn from broadcasting, let alone EPL sides, and 10 years is a long time – will $250 million a year seem so amazing in 2032?

No, the real significance of this deal for the big leagues across the pond is that Apple has finally taken the plunge. European football clubs got rich off the back of battles for eyeballs in their domestic markets between their big traditional broadcaster and whatever new cable or satellite network entered their market 30 years ago. But peace has broken out on those fronts across the continent, leaving the EPL and all the other leagues batting their eyelids at the FAANGs — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – to come in and start throwing money around.

The EPL has successfully enticed Amazon into the market but the online shopping giant’s entrance has not fired the gun on another media-rights arms race. Maybe this MLS deal means Apple is ready to roll.

“Sport clearly represents the next battleground for ownership of the living room among the big tech companies,” says Paolo Pescatore, a London-based media analyst. “This is a statement of intent by Apple. While it’s late to the party, it must now be considered a serious player for sports rights in key markets.”

Pierre Maes, a Belgian media rights expert, agrees…up to a point.

“Apple remains shy in its sports media investments,” says Maes. “After the (rather cheap) MLB deal, some said Apple was going for the big fish, i.e. the NFL. But this is a new cheap deal. We will have to wait a bit longer to see them invest more.”

And if it does, the big European leagues will be hoping (and assuming) they get the lion’s share.

– Matt Slater

How will this deal affect the league at large? 

There’s a ton still left to determine about this deal: MLS needs to staff up its production department, build or move into a broadcast facility, figure out additional, non-gameday programming and actually work out agreements with linear networks like ESPN and Univision. They need to do it all quickly, too. The months leading up to the start of the 2023 season and the official beginning of this deal will be absolutely wild for all those working on MLS production.

The Apple agreement, however, gives MLS a legitimate platform from which to build. Sources were skeptical that the league would even net $200 million a year in broadcast revenue in this deal; they’re eclipsing that total from just Apple.

A portion of that money will have to be reinvested in teams as mandated by the CBA, but it also gives the league and its owners some additional freedom to invest over the top of those requirements and to put additional funds into their MLS Next Pro sides and academies. More money in the system could also theoretically serve as an impetus for the league to change the restrictive rules that govern how teams are allowed to spend on their first team rosters, as well. That kind of legislative development would have a substantial impact on MLS.

This deal feels like a legitimate positive for MLS. There is some risk, of course, in taking games off of linear TV in local markets. But there is substantial opportunity for reward, both in terms of boosting the bottom-line and in the narrative and content possibilities. It might not change the trajectory of the league incredibly dramatically, but this deal puts MLS in a better position to continue to grow ahead of and capitalize on the all-important 2026 World Cup that will be co-hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

(Top photo: Joseph Maiorana / USA TODAY Sports)


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