On the field, things didn’t get off to the best start for the opening weekend of Major League Soccer, which kicked off a new 10-year-long streaming deal with Apple. The weekend’s marquee match between crosstown rivals Los Angeles FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy was postponed due to “inclement weather,” and later on, Italian superstar Lorenzo Insigne (the league’s most expensive player) was forced off early with an injury. The opening matches were thusly a little less star-studded — but the product off the field was surprisingly solid, even if it points to a very expensive future for sports fans.
This isn’t the first time someone has streamed professional sports, of course, but the MLS deal represents the biggest effort to date. While some MLS matches will still be broadcast on traditional TV networks like EPSN and TSN, every single game will be available through a subscription called MLS Season Pass available through Apple TV. It costs $12.99 a month if you’re an Apple TV Plus subscriber ($14.99 if you’re not). Crucially, it does not include local blackouts, which has hampered streaming offerings in the past; I’m not paying $13 a month if I can’t watch my beloved Toronto FC continue to disappoint me.
While it’s far from the biggest sports league, MLS represents an interesting test case for going (mostly) all in on streaming. It’s a large and growing league — it just added a 29th team in St. Louis this year — and is also relatively young, without the baggage of some of its more established contemporaries. MLS fans don’t have entrenched broadcasts like Monday Night Football or Hockey Night in Canada that could be upended by a shift to streaming. It’s as close to a blank slate as you can get for a league with an existing fan base.
I spent the weekend watching several hours of the service’s big debut, and a few things struck me. First, Apple is not shy about cross-promotion. A monologue touting this “new era” for the league played several times and was performed by Cristo Fernández, who plays the lovable Dani Rojas on Ted Lasso on Apple TV Plus. Later, ahead of the opening match in Nashville, viewers were pointed to an Apple Music playlist that somehow related to a new Johnny Cash-themed jersey (which, like all of this season’s kits, has an Apple TV logo on it). I’m surprised there was no one telling me to play Football Manager on Apple Arcade.
Once you got into the actual games, though, things were much like a traditional broadcast. I watched the opening game between Nashville and New York City, followed by Toronto against DC United, and the standard broadcasts felt, well, standard. The play-by-play broadcasters are all known quantities, and the analysts are made up of former MLS stars. Aside from the fact that I was watching them via the Apple TV app, though, there wasn’t much to differentiate the experience of watching a game from cable. It was neither better nor worse.
That said, MLS has added a few features that it hopes will make the subscription worth it. One is a show called MLS 360, which features “whip around” coverage similar to NFL RedZone. Essentially, the idea is that when a whole bunch of games is airing simultaneously — as was the case this weekend — MLS 360 will jump around between them, showcasing highlights from each match as they happen. Personally, I don’t think this format works well for soccer, where the building of momentum is so important, and you miss a lot just watching highlights. But the show was well produced and features a very expensive-looking set.
It did give me a chance to test out the picture-in-picture feature, which works similarly to the rest of Apple TV Plus. While MLS 360 was on, I kept the match I actually cared about — with Toronto giving up a lead in the dying moments, as per usual — pinned to the top-left corner. It was information overload, which, I assume, is what Apple and MLS are going for. The kind of person who will pay $80 per year to watch every MLS match probably wants to soak in as many matches as humanly possible. Later on, I was able to keep tabs on Vancouver vs. Salt Lake using PiP while I watched old episodes of Seinfeld.
From my brief experience over the weekend, it all works as advertised, including the ability to queue up games to play when they start and an option to watch full broadcasts of matches you couldn’t catch live. Mechanically, it’s a solid service.
But the success of something like MLS Season Pass could have a major impact on the future of sports broadcasting. I’m sure there are some people who only follow MLS, and for them, splurging on a single subscription would make a lot of sense. But the culture of sports, and soccer in particular, is rarely so clear-cut. Part of what makes soccer so fun to follow is that there is so much of it: in addition to catching up on MLS opening weekend, I also watched Bayern Munich hold onto their German title aspirations with a blowout win and saw the two powers from Madrid battle to a draw in Spain. For those, I stuck with the old standby: cable, which I keep around purely because it lets me watch lots of different sports.
Now, imagine MLS Season Pass is a hit that gives all of those other leagues the same idea. Paying a separate subscription to watch each of LaLiga, the Bundesliga, or the Premier League sounds like a nightmare that would very quickly get out of hand financially — and that’s not even including all of the other teams and leagues I follow from other sports. It almost makes cable seem appealing. In that future, it’s likely only the bigger most globally known leagues would gain traction in streaming, which could have an adverse impact on things like the burgeoning world of women’s club soccer. MLS has a head start, but it, and other comparatively small but growing leagues, might struggle once some real competition rolls around.
For now, the product is solid, and it does eliminate the small stress of figuring out where to watch an MLS match. But I can’t help but worry about a few years down the line — and how much more this very expensive hobby will cost me.