What fans want from MLS ‘new partnership with Apple

At last, MLS has struck 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 brings tremendous potential to innovate how fans digest viewable MLS content.

Some elements are already established: With no more local TV broadcast deals, Apple will show every single game, which will now feature feature pre-, post-game and halftime shows. There will be a whiparound show, with all games now taking place uniformly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Fans will be able to watch MLS without local blackouts through Apple’s service, a welcome departure from the standards at ESPN + and MLS Live.

But with so much left unanswered, now’s the time to form a wishlist of features and offerings for the new venture. In March, The Athletic conducted a survey That combined insight from 2,201 soccer fans on their viewing experiences. Additionally, we’ve gleaned insight from some of the league’s diehard fans to understand the specific drawbacks and benefits from the ESPN + era, as well as expectations for what comes with Apple.

Reflecting on what had been

Of the fans who filled out our survey in March, 80.2% subscribed to ESPN +, with another 6.3% owning up to using a friend or relative’s login to the service. Nearly half of this group (49.7%) said they would “extremely likely” cancel this subscription if the platform’s soccer offerings shrunk. Users of the platform were most favorable in rating ESPN + ‘s stream dependability, while the service also received high marks for its pricepoint ($ 6.99 a month).

While Apple TV + does offer some original content (including an inescapable fictional show about soccer), its overall package beyond soccer doesn’t hold a candle to what many subscribers experienced when bundling ESPN + with Disney + and Hulu. (Though, it should be noted, Apple TV + has an estimated subscriber base of 25 million compared to ESPN + ‘s 22.3 million.) For viewers who are subscribed only to MLS, however, the streamlined offering may be refreshing compared to paying for unused access to other sports. While MLS’s service will be offered as a standable subscription, it is unclear if there is a price point that offers both the soccer and Apple TV +.

Local blackouts were a common source of ire as fans were less likely to attend games in-stadium, as well as being unable to choose between their home or away broadcasts.

In opining on broadcast factors in March, 58.2% of survey respondents were indifferent to the presence of sideline reporters for soccer broadcasts, with 19.6% of those surveyed preferring watch matches to correspondents. In the two years the trend of commentators interviewing head coaches during the run of play, 45.6% had come to dislike the gimmick, while 18.3% found it to be an informative addition. In general, 84.3% of fans said the viewing landscape of the current state was better than it was in 2017, before the streaming boom truly took off.

What could be

A few pieces of the league’s initial Apple announcement received near unanimous approval from fans who spoke The AthleticGeneral Chat Chat Lounge The end of local blackouts (as well as the simulcasting of potential national broadcasts on ESPN or Univision) was particularly welcome, as was news about including access to the service for MLS season ticket holders. The promise of studio analysis before, during and after matches will remove the common hard-pivot from a major MLS match to national airwaves for an antique car auction or another completely unrelated bit of programming. The packaged presence of the Leagues Cup, as well as select MLS youth matches, helps pad the value proposition of the service.

There are some concerns about the new agreement that will need to be answered over time, though. Apple’s launch into the soccer streaming landscape adds yet another requisite subscription for North American soccer fans, who already need cable access to the World Cups and Premier League, Peacock for the Premier League, Paramount + for the NWSL, Champions League, Serie A and CONCACAF Competitions and ESPN + for La Liga, the Bundesliga, the FA Cup and the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. At a certain point, the splintering will prick the wallets of consumers and force decisions about how many services can be afforded.

While the one-stop shop approach and additional content (more on that in a bit) could be a boon for MLS diehards, there’s reason to be concerned about casual sports fans. The end of local broadcasts does cut into a team’s ability to reach a new audience among fans of other in-market teams. As a result, there is a potential for a reduction in local sponsorships as the lack of advertising on airwaves cuts into an essential draw for any partnership. Additionally, it could make watch parties or casual viewing at bars more difficult – not every sports bar has caught up to the streaming era, and a barrage of maze streaming services may be provided by non-starter if MLS and Apple do not provide. guidance.

The sizable investment Apple is making suggests that there could be heightened interest in innovating in how the league is presented. Apple’s early broadcasts of Major League Baseball include advanced in-match stats and projections that, while not free of charge, have enhanced some viewers’ experience. Simple wishlist items will include ability to pause, fast-forward and rewind (currently lacking on Paramount +), a desire to sync streams with other users (like Disney + ‘s feature), and access replays from the current and bygone seasons. (Apple’s MLB catalog does include at least a few weeks of game replays.) Some fans will like the option to turn off commentary tracks altogether, while others cite the US Open Cup’s unique feature to view multiple games simultaneously on ESPN + as a draw.

With an emphasis on studio shows around matches, survey takers gave CBS Sports their marks for top marks, which one respondent deemed as “taking the analysis seriously, but talking about it in a more casual way.” MLS could do its new production wing by creating a clear role definition between match commentators and studio voices to bring more perspectives into the fold rather than forcing analysts into double duty. MLS also seems to be ripening to parrot some of what ESPN does with its College Gameday approach, dropping markets into live shows at stadiums or bars / breweries / outdoor landmarks with a raucous crowd of soccer supporters on hand. Getting charismatic ex-pros together for something like ESPN’s ManningCast could also give a fun new way to watch MLS at home.

If Apple and MLS wanted to delve into non-match content, there’s plenty of untapped potential in this league. While ESPN + chronicles the early days of LAFC, fans love documentary series such as All or Nothing, Hard Knocks or Sunderland Til I Die, which give behind-the-scenes lenses in a single season of the grind. MLS could seriously enhance its relevance of its offseason by bringing back the MLS to showcase upcoming domestic talents and holding studio shows to break down the day’s rumors and transactions.

While MLS is still relatively young in the landscape of major American sports, it does have established history that is relatively underutilized, as storytelling around the league’s legends and great games is sorely lacking. NFL Films is the standard for sports documentaries and all-access viewing, and MLS could try to emulate their model. The league already has in-house experts at MLSsoccer.com who can provide familiar voices, while MLS legends like Cobi Jones, Landon Donovan, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas remain ever-present in the sport’s landscape. Definitive profiles on these greats, as well as year-in-review type content, will help educate fans on what they missed before they joined the league.

There’s also room for some need levity. Newly minted US Soccer Hall of Famer Clint Dempsey was a breakout star during the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Broadcasts at Paramount +. Few men’s national team players are 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 country. The league could do with its fans a favorable breakdown of its labyrinth of roster rules. While it would be hard to mimic the NFL’s success with kid-friendly broadcasts on Nickelodeon due to the network’s ownership of Viacom, maybe Apple exclusives like The Peanuts or Fraggle Rock could do the trick. Even some short segments where current or retired MLS players will give tips to young soccer players will help make the league’s stars more recognizable and relevant.

And yes, fine: it’s worth bracing for the inevitable Ted Lasso spinoff, where MLS launches an expansion team in Richmond, Virginia.

There’s a chance that the original content around MLS is minimal, but it’s not hard to dream. The financial investment made by Apple (plus the sizable investment MLS is undertaking ramping up its own production wing) drastically exceeded any reasonable outsider’s expectations. As a result, there is a heightened intrigue about the league that will continue for the coming months. The answers to some of the concerns above, combined with what unique ideas MLS comes up with, could be important for ensuring fans make the switch from a more established sports service like ESPN + to the new venture.

(Photo: Apple Inc. – USA TODAY Sports)

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