If live streaming is the future of sports programming, the future starts now for MLS.
Less than eight months after the announcement of a 10-year MLS/Apple TV partnership, most of the broadcast details have been finalized. Next up is getting viewers to change habits — and pony up for subscriptions.
For most people, tuning in to MLS games this season will require paying for Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass — except season ticket-holders, who receive the program gratis. Pricing is listed at $14.99 per month or $99 for the season. This is higher than ESPN+ and Paramount, which present several top European soccer competitions, plus other sports.
Dedicated MLS followers might not mind the cost for the Season Pass, but it could put off others. Soccer alternatives to MLS include England’s Premier League and Liga MX, their matches available on cable.
The whole thing will take some getting used to. But for MLS supporters, once you’ve paid up, you won’t have to search for a game or even look up gametimes. From opening day, Feb. 25, through the playoffs, subscribers will be plugged in to the league. Once the app has been downloaded, they can access the game of their choice on the device of their choice, including an old-style cable box.
Should game time slip your mind, not to worry: a reminder will be sent out, prompting you to grab the remote or punch a couple of buttons on the cell phone in time to tune in.
The idea, though, is that not many reminders will be needed, since the goal is to have uniform starting times — 7:30 p.m. — until the final day of the regular season, when Eastern Conference matches will begin at 6 p.m.
The Revolution will play 28 times on Saturdays, four times on Wednesdays, and twice on Sundays. They announced this week that one Saturday game (at New York City FC on June 3) has been changed to 3:30 p.m. But even with inevitable changes of schedule, starts should be more predictable than last season, when there were 63 different kickoff times leaguewide.
So, what to expect once the season starts?
Opening weekend will be free to all, starting with Nashville vs. New York City at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, and concluding with Seattle vs. Colorado at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26. The other 12 games that weekend have 7:30 p.m. local starts, including the Revolution’s visit to Charlotte.
There will be plenty of “shoulder programming,” an industry term for pre- and post-event shows. Day-of-game features will include a whip-around update from every stadium. For the rest of the week, features, highlight packages, and replays of games are available, starting now. Also, matches from the Leagues Cup, MLS Next, and MLS Next Pro will be presented.
Production values should improve, thanks to 1080p camera resolution — a term for not just high definition but full high definition.
Two-person commentating crews will work every game, with English and Spanish available, plus French for Canadian teams. Several prominent MLS announcers, including Revolution all-time leading scorer Taylor Twellman, have signed on. Some announcers who have become identified with teams have been retained, but viewers might have to get used to new voices.
The new setup might not work for the generic sports fan and casual supporter of the local team. You won’t just happen onto a game while surfing channels, except for 34 matches being carried by Fox Sports.
Why is MLS making this move? The league takes in $2.5 billion, a small stake for Apple but a lot for MLS, especially since it has struggled to gain traction via traditional TV ratings over 27 years.
Spread out over a decade, the payoff is less impressive — about $8.6 million per team annually. But the league is thinking big, and this opens horizons, with the potential to go global, tapping into what Apple calculates as billions of devices.
MLS has a lot of down time, but that could change as it starts receiving exposure across Apple platforms. Already, just being associated with Apple has raised MLS’s profile, and that is before the games have begun.
Many questions remain, and bumps in the road can be expected. But if everything smooths out, all-streaming all-the-time could not only be a game-changer for MLS but provide a blueprint for others. Rival leagues, some with much greater presence than MLS, have been doing the math and will be watching this project closely.
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.