Don Garber smiled as he showed off Major League Soccer’s new state-of-the-art facility, which will host studio shows for the Apple TV Season Pass package.
While flashy studios and graphics work to produce a wow factor, the longtime MLS commissioner knows the importance of this weekend’s season launch.
The 10-year, $2.5 billion partnership between Apple TV and MLS kicked off on Feb. 1 with the launch of Season Pass. Starting Saturday, every match — regular season, postseason, Leagues Cup, the All-Star game, and developmental leagues — can be accessed on the Apple TV app, allowing fans to watch without local blackouts or restrictions.
“We feel like we’re the Usain Bolt of television production. This has been a wild sprint for the last number of months, but it’s one where we’re really confident,” Garber said during an interview with The Associated Press at the league’s media seminar last month in San Jose, California.
The MLS/Apple model abandons the traditional framework where most games are available through a national or regional network. Even though MLS had some favorable local agreements, most teams struggled for visibility when they weren’t on either Fox, FS1 or ESPN.
It is also a novel undertaking for a sports league and a tech giant to come together to launch a direct-to-consumer product.
“We’ve looked at sports and acknowledged that there’s never been a better time to be a sports fan, and there’s also never been a worse time to be a sports fan,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services. “We have an opportunity with this partnership to make the experience better for fans and help grow the sport and the league in the US and beyond.”
It is an understatement to say what Apple and MLS have built in less than nine months is ambitious. Besides constructing a 6,000-square foot production facility in the Spanish Harlem area of Manhattan, 92 announcers have been hired, and production agreements have been secured with NEP Group and IMG.
In the first season alone, over 900 matches representing over 2,000 hours of live coverage are expected to be on Season Pass.
As much as there will be a focus on technology, MLS and Apple are also attempting to satisfy what fans want in a soccer broadcast. All matches will be carried in English, Spanish and French for matches involving Canadian clubs. The announcers and production personnel will also be at the stadiums instead of calling matches remotely.
Fans will also have the option of accessing the home radio feed to most matches. MLS has said all of the games will be broadcast in 1080p and that there will be more camera angles than seen in the broadcasts aired locally in recent seasons.
By taking over the production of all its matches, MLS is conducting business the way most European soccer leagues have done it for years. The most significant difference is that this reaches beyond North America. Fans in London, Paris and wherever the Apple TV app is available will be able to see the games as well.
“We’re playing the global sport, but we’re not yet a global league,” Garber said.
MLS and Apple are confident that the first weekend will be free of technological snafus or crashes. They have done some preseason games, including last Saturday’s Toronto FC-LA Galaxy match that could be seen on Season Pass.
Garber though, acknowledges that there will be some growing pains at the start, as is the case whenever any network or package launches.
MLS will not only be competing for viewers but for their dollars. While soccer fans, more than any other group, have shown they are willing to see their favorite teams, they often have to subscribe to multiple streaming services.
England’s Premier League is on NBC and Peacock, Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga are carried by ESPN+ and Italy’s Serie A is on Paramount+.
MLS Season Pass will be $14.99 per month or $99 a season. Apple TV+ subscribers will be able to purchase it at $12.99 per month and $79 per season. Season-ticket holders to MLS clubs will receive subscriptions as part of their ticket benefits.
For those who have Apple TV+ and don’t want to subscribe, all the games on opening week will be available for free. After that, Apple expects to offer six games free per week on Apple TV.
MLS isn’t alone in mainly moving to streaming. The NWSL is in the final season of its agreement with CBS and Paramount+, while most U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team games are being carried on HBO Max as part of an agreement with Warner Brothers Sports.
While some might consider the move to mostly streaming as tuning out the traditional sports fan, Garber and MLS see it appealing more to its fan base. With matches mainly on Saturday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. local time, MLS is trying to avoid fans not having a consistent viewing schedule.
Last season, MLS had 63 different start times because it was at the mercy of national and regional broadcast windows.
“I look at the way our fans are consuming sports today and soccer today, it is to have the best possible access that will motivate fans that will allow them to experience an MLS and our players, whether they’re current or new, in a way that will probably be more under our control than depending on somebody doing that for us,” Garber said.
Fox Sports will have 34 regular-season games, including a record 15 on Fox.
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