Three years ago, back in the Before Times, SportsBusiness Journal reported that Major League Soccer had opted to do something rather eyebrow-raising. MLS had told its existing and future teams not to sell local broadcast rights beyond 2022 when its national TV deals were set to expire, in hopes of maximizing the value the league could offer to potential media partners. With both national and local TV revenue falling short of other soccer or American professional sports leagues, this represented a big gamble to try and maximize the league’s media revenue going forward, but Awful Announcing observed that it carried a big risk of backfiring regardless of whether or not it was successful. It would almost assuredly only work if MLS reached a deal with a streaming service, at a time when tech companies had shown little serious interest in American sports and legacy media companies were only just starting to dip their toes in the water of streaming, and most companies would likely balk at taking on both national and local MLS rights; by not being able to sell local rights to the most valuable teams separately those teams’ rights would be undervalued, and with them, potentially local MLS rights as a whole; but on the flip side, if MLS didn’t sell local rights to anyone, all the teams would be stuck with what the state of the local rights market, and of local MLS TV ratings, would be in 2022, for better and worse.
In the end, though, MLS’ gamble paid off brilliantly – and in a way that could forge a path for other leagues going forward. Two weeks ago MLS announced a 10-year agreement with Apple unlike any other in American sports. While Apple is guaranteeing MLS $250 million a year, and will have the rights to show some games for free and on Apple TV+, the core of the deal is a partnership MLS and Apple are entering into to create a new streaming service, accessible through the Apple TV app, with rights to every single MLS game, across the country and around the world, whether in- or out-of-market. MLS will produce coverage of every game with commentary in English and Spanish (and French for Canadian teams) or from each team’s local radio broadcast. MLS still hopes to reach an agreement with a linear TV partner(s), but any such games would be simulcast with Apple, not exclusive, and in a “letter to fans” from Commissioner Don Garber, it’s indicated that any such agreement would only be for the “early years” of the partnership, meaning if streaming of live sports was sufficiently mainstream down the line, MLS could yet abandon linear TV entirely.