Apple scores 10-year deal to stream all live Major League Soccer games

Apple has scored significant sports programming under a new 10-year deal with Major League Soccer that’s reportedly worth at least $2.5 billion.

The agreement, which covers global media rights, was announced Tuesday and means the Apple TV app will be the exclusive home to all live MLS matches starting in 2023. It’s a major move that every game will be available in one place via streaming rather than on traditional cable or broadcast TV – with Apple calling the partnership “a historic first for a major professional sports league.”

Major League Soccer is still negotiating with linear TV networks to simulcast select matches, Sports Business Journal reported.

According to the Wall Street Journal, citing sources familiar with the matter, the deal is worth a minimum of $250 million per year. Apple and MLS did not disclose financial terms.

The Apple TV app will be the only destination where fans can subscribe to a new MLS streaming service to access all of the matches, with both live and on-demand content. In addition to games, content will include a new weekly live match whip-around show, game replays, highlights, analysis and other original programming.  Details around pricing for a subscription, when users can sign up and more specifics on new MLS programming, are expected to be disclosed in the coming months.

One aspect that’s different about the deal, Sports Business Journal reported citing MLS Commissioner Don Garber, is that Apple isn’t paying rights fees for the package, but instead a minimum guarantee (worth the reported $250M per year) against revenue that will be achieved on the subscription business of the new MLS streaming service.

“Then, we go over those guarantees, we’ll have the opportunity to make more money, which is really unique in sports media,” Garber told SBJ.

Anyone with MLS full season ticket packages will get access to the new MLS streaming service included.  Subscribers of Apple TV+, which costs $4.99 per month, will be able to watch a large selection of MLS and Leagues Cup matches at no additional cost, while a limited number of games will be available for free on Apple TV to anyone with internet. 

Eddy Cue, Apple SVP of Services, pointed to the deal as alleviating fan frustration by not having to deal with fragmentation across a variety of services to watch full season matches.

“For the first time in the history of sports, fans will be able to access everything from a major professional sports league in one place,” said Cue in a statement. “It’s a dream come true for MLS fans, soccer fans, and anyone who loves sports. No fragmentation, no frustration — just the flexibility to sign up for one convenient service that gives you everything MLS, anywhere and anytime you want to watch.”

It looks like the iPhone-maker might also incorporate the MLS deal into other facets of its business, as the announcement said to expect announcements in coming months disclosing “all the ways fans will be able to enjoy MLS content across the Apple ecosystem.”

As of next season most regular season MLS games will be played on Saturday nights, with midweek matches happening every Wednesday, according to World Soccer Talk. That’s a change from the current scheduling format, where games are played on multiple days throughout a given week.

Major League soccer has doubled in size to 29 clubs over the last 15 years, with Apple saying it’s the fastest-growing soccer league in the world.

And streaming services are looking to pull in more viewers with sports content, while leagues may be hoping to attract younger viewers who have moved away from traditional TV packages.

TVREV analyst John Cassillo in a Wednesday blog said that Apple avoiding local blackout rules is how, down the line, it could help shift consumers away from linear, even if that's toward other services that have more sports content and/or live TV choices.

"But Apple certainly seems to be stacking up reasons why consumers don't 'need' linear anymore if it's going to start removing content gates like these," wrote Cassillo.

And Apple is essentially test-driving a few things with the deal, he continued, including how much more money people will pay for live live sports, how much it matters to consumers to avoid local blackouts, and gauging the level of soccer interest for U.S. audiences. 

"The answers there guide a lot of Apple's TV future as it inevitably becomes a larger player in future bidding wars for live events (sports or otherwise)," Cassillo stated.

The partnership with MLS to make local blackouts a thing of the past "could pave the way for the future of streaming sports packages" including NFL Sunday Ticket rights that Apple's a reported bidder for, he commented.

 In April, reports pegged Apple as having secured rights to the NFL’s Sunday Ticket (which could cost as much as $2.5 billion per year), though no official announcement has been disclosed. There could also be potential to bundle in a new forthcoming NFL Plus streaming service if certain deals come to fruition, according to a May report from Sports Business Journal that pointed to Apple and Amazon as front runners in talks over possibly securing an equity stake in NFL Media properties. Earlier this year Apple TV+ started streaming Friday Night Baseball, after securing a deal with MLB for a weekly doubleheader of live baseball games.

"And if Apple’s the only provider who can avoid local blackouts, suddenly the service becomes a lot more appealing for fans," continued TVREV's Cassillo. "Fans hate blackouts and would potentially flock to the service for live sports if and when it had more than 'just' MLS matches and Friday night MLB action."

Updated with commentary from TVREV's John Cassillo.