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SportsPro Reviews… MLS Season Pass on Apple TV

MLS has become the first major US sports league to go all-in on streaming. But what is Apple’s offering like to use and can it be a success? SportsPro delivers its verdict and considers whether this is the future of sports broadcasting.

22 March 2023 Steve McCaskill

Few media rights deals have attracted as much attention as Major League Soccer’s (MLS) new global agreement with Apple.

At US$2.5 billion, it’s far from the most lucrative in world sport but it could have huge significance for how sport is watched in the future. For the first time, a major US sports league has put its entire inventory on a direct-to-consumer (DTC) streaming service, meaning viewers can watch every single match with a single subscription, wherever they are in the world.

MLS also represents Apple’s most significant foray into sport so far, building on its acquisition of a Major League Baseball (MLB) rights package last year. There are plenty of rights holders keeping an eye on what’s going on – either because they are interested in doing something similar or because they hope that Apple will be more active in the market, driving up the value of media rights.

It’s no wonder that the partnership has industry tongues wagging. But what is MLS Season Pass like as a product? SportsPro ventured onto the Apple TV platform to find out.

What’s on offer?

Everything. More specifically, every single MLS regular season and playoff game is streamed live with English and Spanish commentary and matches involving Canadian teams are also available in French.

MLS has also assumed responsibility for production, meaning the visual branding and presentation is more consistent than the previous model with national broadcasters and regional sports networks (RSNs).

Going DTC means MLS is no longer competing for airtime on linear channels, giving it more control over scheduling. Kick-off times are now more standardised, with most matches taking place on Saturday evenings.

This means that in addition to pre and post-game shows, MLS Season Pass can offer a National Football League (NFL) RedZone-inspired whiparound programme that broadcasts the most important moments from games being played simultaneously. ‘MLS 360’ blends these near-live highlights with interviews and studio analysis and is now available to all Apple TV+ users – even if they don’t subscribe to MLS Season Pass.

MLS Season Pass also offers live games from the Leagues Cup, Next Pro and MLS Next competitions, bringing the total figure to 905 a season.

As you’d expect, there are full-match replays, highlights and a range of behind-the-scenes content, much of which has been supplied by the teams themselves. There’s plenty for fans to enjoy, regardless of which club they support, engaging them before, after and during live matches.

How much does it cost?

It depends. For non-Apple TV+ subscribers, it costs US$14.99 a month or US$99.99 for the season, a price point which drops to US$12.99 a month or $79.99 annually for an Apple TV+ subscriber. As mentioned above, some games are available in front of the paywall. MLS season ticket holders also receive free access to the platform.

What’s the user experience like?

Apple’s ability to create intuitive, aesthetically pleasing software helped it to establish the modern smartphone market in the late 2000s and its design credentials are on full display here. The dedicated MLS Season Pass hub boasts a clean, colourful and intuitive user interface that makes the most of each team’s branding and imagery, giving it some real identity to complement its functionality.

Navigation is straight forward. It’s easy to jump into live games, while each team has its own page housing highlights and other content.

There are only two serious gripes. The first is that MLS Season Pass can be difficult to find. In the UK, it was only visible on the search page of the Apple TV+ app and this will do little to aid discoverability. The second is that there is no ‘spoiler free’ mode that hides the scores – most other over-the-top (OTT) platforms now offer this.

Are there any unique features or innovations?

One of the most attractive qualities of Apple as a broadcast partner for MLS is its track record of technological innovation. There is huge potential for MLS to be baked into iOS and harness the power of Apple’s reach and service portfolio to deliver more innovative broadcasts, drive awareness, and attract new audiences.

But there is little evidence of this at launch. The initial focus has clearly been getting the venture off the ground, but more tech-focused features would be expected in the future. MLS has been busy signing up new technological partners in the form of Deltatre and Sportec Solutions, has a partnership with IMG Arena, and is even setting up its own incubator for early-stage digital companies.

While many of these startups will focus on areas beyond broadcasting and fan engagement, it would be logical to assume that at least some of them will be relevant for MLS Season Pass now that production has been brought in house.

Until then, the main innovation is MLS 360. While other leagues, most notably LaLiga, stagger their kick-offs to create multiple television windows, MLS can take advantage of its newfound freedom to offer something that no one else in world soccer is.

A more fluid sport like soccer will struggle to match the immediacy of RedZone, which can more easily predict a scoring play, but MLS 360 is a clear step up from similar concepts such as the ‘Konferenz’ used in Germany.

What’s the verdict?

For MLS fans used to being treated as an afterthought when compared to the ‘big four’ major professional leagues and college football, this is an amazing product at a competitive price point. There is so much content, greater and more uniform production values, and no need to navigate multiple channels or manage different subscriptions.

From a usability standpoint, it cannot be faulted – even if it’s disappointing that the full power of iOS integration hasn’t been fully leveraged at launch. Expect to see further development on that front as the partnership evolves.

Shifting away from RSNs looks like an astute move given the ongoing difficulties in that sector and Season Pass will resonate strongly with MLS’s more digitally native, youthful fanbase and the cord cutters among them. And globally, a single destination makes more sense than a nomadic existence across obscure networks.

But, at least in the US, there are still discoverability concerns that need to be addressed if Season Pass isn’t to become a service only for the purist.

Although Apple TV will show some games for free, the main vehicle for awareness among more casual fans will be Fox’s linear coverage. The real challenge will be convincing more people to subscribe at a time when many households are cutting back on costs. 

But all things considered, MLS fans will be more than happy with the outcome. The league is no longer the poor relation when it comes to broadcasting arrangements and NFL, National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) fans would love to have something like this – and might even be hoping Apple comes calling one day.

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