August 20, 2022

Finally, MLS has secured its new broadcast deal. The 10-year pact with Apple was announced on Tuesday and will kick off for the 2023 season. And the involvement of a powerful new partner holds huge potential to innovate the way fans digest viewable MLS content.

Some elements are already established: Without more local TV broadcasting agreements, Apple will broadcast every game, which will now offer pre-game, post-game and halftime shows. There will be a whirlwind spectacle, with all matches now taking place evenly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Fans will be able to watch MLS without local outages through Apple’s service, a welcome departure from the standards of ESPN+ and MLS Live.

But with so much unanswered, now is the time to make a wish list of features and offerings for the new company. In March, Athleticism conducted an investigation which gathered feedback from 2,201 football fans on their viewing experiences. Additionally, we’ve gathered insights from some of the league’s die-hard fans to understand the specific cons and pros of the ESPN+ era, as well as hopes for what’s to come with Apple.

Reflecting on what had been

Of the fans who responded to our survey in March, 80.2% subscribed to ESPN+, and an additional 6.3% said they used a friend or relative’s login to access the service. Almost half of this group (49.7%) said they would be “extremely likely” to cancel this subscription if the platform’s football offerings were reduced. Platform users were the most favorable in rating the reliability of ESPN+’s stream, while the service also received high marks for its price ($6.99 per month).

Although Apple TV+ offers original content (including a must-see football drama show), its overall offering beyond football fails to take into account what many subscribers experienced during the ESPN+ consolidation. with Disney+ and Hulu. (However, it should be noted that Apple TV+ has a estimated subscriber base 25 million compared to ESPN+’s 22.3 million.) For viewers who have only subscribed to MLS, however, the simplified offer may be refreshing compared to paying for unused access to other sports. While MLS’s service will be offered as a permanent subscription, it’s unclear if there’s a price that offers both football and Apple TV+.

Local power cuts were a common source of ire, as fans were less likely to attend matches in the stadium, and were unable to choose their commentators between home or away broadcasts.

According to broadcast factors in March, 58.2% of survey respondents were indifferent to the presence of secondary journalists for football broadcasts, with 19.6% of respondents preferring to watch matches with a correspondent. Two years after the start of the trend for commentators to question head coaches during the course of the game, 45.6% had come to dislike the gimmick, while 18.3% found it to be an informative addition. Overall, 84.3% of fans said the current state of the viewing landscape was better than it had been compared to 2017, before the streaming boom really took off.

What could be

A few elements of Apple’s initial announcement of the league received near-unanimous approval from fans who spoke with Athleticism. The end of local blackouts (as well as the simulcast of any national broadcasts on ESPN or Univision) was particularly welcome, as was the news about the inclusion of access to the service for MLS season ticket holders. The promise of in-studio analysis before, during and after games will eliminate the common hard pivot from a big MLS game on the national airwaves to a vintage car auction or other completely unrelated programming. The bundled presence of the League Cup, as well as some MLS youth games, helps flesh out the service’s value proposition.

There are, however, some concerns about the new deal that will need to be addressed over time. Apple’s launch into the football streaming landscape adds another required subscription for North American football fans, who may already need cable access for World Cups and the Premier League, Peacock for the Premier League, Paramount+ for NWSL, Champions League, Serie A and CONCACAF competitions and ESPN+ for La Liga, Bundesliga, FA Cup and Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. At some point, the split will sting consumers’ wallets and force decisions on how many services can be offered.

While the one-stop-shop approach and additional content (more on that in a moment) can be a boon for die-hard MLS fans, there’s cause for concern for the casual sports fan. The end of local broadcasts reduces a team’s ability to reach new audiences among fans of other teams in the market. As a result, there is the potential for local sponsorships to dwindle, as the lack of publicity on the radio airwaves becomes a key draw for any partnership. Plus, it could make watch parties or the occasional bar viewing more difficult — not all sports bars have caught up to the streaming era, and guiding bartenders through a maze of streaming services can be a challenge. non-starter if MLS and Apple don’t provide guidance.

The considerable investment that Apple is making suggests that there could be increased interest in innovating in the presentation of the league. Apple’s early broadcasts of Major League Baseball included advanced in-game stats and projections that, while not free of controversy, enhanced the experience for some viewers. Simple wishlist items would include the ability to pause, fast forward, and rewind (currently absent from Paramount+), the desire to sync streams with other users (like the Disney+ feature ) and access to replays of current and past seasons. (Apple’s MLB catalog includes at least a few weeks of game replays.) Some fans would like the option to turn off commentary tracks altogether, while others cited the US Open Cup’s unique feature to view multiple games simultaneously on ESPN+ as being a draw.

With a focus on in-studio broadcasts around games, respondents gave CBS Sports top marks for their approach, which one respondent called “taking the analysis seriously, but talking about it more relaxed manner. MLS could do its new production wing a favor by creating a clear definition of roles between match commentators and studio voices to bring more perspectives into the fold rather than forcing analysts into double duty. MLS also seems ripe to replicate some of what ESPN is doing with its College Gameday approach, going to markets to do live shows in stadiums or outdoor bars/breweries/landmarks with raucous crowds of football fans. at hand. Bringing together charismatic ex-pros for something like ESPN’s ManningCast could also provide a fun new way to watch MLS at home.

If Apple and MLS wanted to delve into non-game content, there’s a lot of untapped potential in this league. While ESPN+ has chronicled LAFC’s early days, fans love docu-series such as All or Nothing, Hard Knocks or Sunderland Til I Die, which provide behind-the-scenes insight into the single-season grind. MLS could seriously improve the relevance of its offseason by bringing back the MLS suit to showcase upcoming domestic talent and hosting studio shows to break up rumors and deals of the day.

Although MLS is still relatively young on the landscape of major American sports, it has established a relatively underutilized history, as storytelling around league legends and big games is sorely lacking. NFL Films remains the standard for sports documentaries and full-access viewing, and MLS could try to emulate their model. The league already has in-house experts on who can provide familiar voices, while MLS legends like Cobi Jones, Landon Donovan, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas still remain in the sport’s landscape. Definitive profiles on these big names, along with year-in-review-type content, would help educate fans on what they missed before joining league supporters.

There is also room for necessary lightness. American Football Hall of Fame newcomer Clint Dempsey has been a star on CONCACAF World Cup qualifying broadcasts on Paramount+. Few men’s national team players are as beloved as he is, and he could be a good fit for a series like ESPN’s “Peyton’s Places,” which sees Peyton Manning visit NFL legends and landmarks across the world. country. The league could do its fans a favor with accessible breakdowns of its maze of roster rules. While it’s hard to emulate the NFL’s success with kid-friendly shows on Nickelodeon due to the network’s ownership under Viacom, perhaps Apple exclusives like The Peanuts or Fraggle Rock could do the trick. . Even some short segments where current or retired MLS players give advice to young football players would help make league stars more recognizable and relevant.

And yes, very well: it’s worth preparing for the inevitable Ted Lasso spin-off, where MLS launches an expansion team in Richmond, Va.

Original content around MLS may be minimal, but it’s hard not to dream. The financial investment made by Apple (along with the considerable investment MLS is making to develop its own production wing) has far exceeded the expectations of almost any reasonable outsider. As a result, there is heightened intrigue about the league which will continue over the next few months. Answers to some of the above concerns, combined with MLS’s unique insights, could be important in ensuring fans move from a more established sports service like ESPN+ to the new venture.

(Photo: Apple Inc.-USA TODAY Sports)