As Apple and MLS get set to enter into a long-term partnership, what does each side get from the deal? And what opportunity exists for talent?
Every so often, usually after the Super Bowl and at the end of the year, you will see an updated version of the same lists. One is the most-watched telecasts in a given year, and the other is an updated list of the most-watched of all time. The annual list is always nine sporting events and the finale of America’s Got Talent or something of that ilk, while the all-time list is nine Super Bowls and the M*A*S*H finale.
The somewhat obvious but undeniable truism borne out of this data is the value of live programming, and specifically live sports programming, as the most valuable IP in the modern television and streaming landscape. It also begs the question of just how good that M*A*S*H finale really was, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.
In a few days, the first MLS games will air on Apple TV via MLS Season Pass as a result of a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal that represents a boon for MLS in both revenue and reach, and further illuminates some key points of Apple’s strategy of how they want to build their offering of that oh-so-valuable live sports programming. Let’s take a look at the deal from a few different perspectives.
As Justin Brinbaum reported in his recent accounting of MLS team values in Forbes, LAFC is the first MLS club to reach a billion-dollar valuation, which is more than double the club’s previous valuation of $475M in Forbes’ previous report in 2019. Several other MLS clubs have seen significant growth in value, and the average team valuation has increased about 85% since 2019.
This injection of capital from the Apple deal – which is more than a 3X jump from the previous $75 million annual deal with ESPN/Fox/Univision – will allow for further investment and development in the league as a whole as well as the individual franchises, to continue the league’s current growth trajectory.
These franchise valuations have corresponded with an increase in player salaries and talent level in the league and coincided with FIFA awarding the 2026 World Cup to North America. Which makes this an opportune time for the MLS to align with one of the biggest brands on the planet and capitalize on their large network of advertisers and sponsors.
There will be challenges from the MLS side that are worth considering, though, many of which are spelled out well by Christopher Harris at World Soccer Talk. While the deal does offer MLS a large span of potential reach via Apple’s customer base, moving game broadcasts from cable and terrestrial TV to a subscription streaming service creates more barriers to entry for casual fans. And though the prospect of customized premium content for each team is an interesting one, it relies on the clubs themselves to allocate the resources to produce that content, an effort which is off to something of a rocky start.
From Apple’s perspective, this is a vital step in their quest to become a major player in the sports-rights game that some of their tech rivals have already joined. Amazon has a full slate of Thursday Night Football games, on top of some international streaming rights. Google just won the rights to NFL Sunday Ticket as it moves from DIRECTV onto streaming.
With the MLS deal and their previous deal with MLB for Friday Night Baseball, Apple has already proven to be a serious player in the sports-rights bidding wars. They were reportedly in the mix for the Sunday Ticket rights, but ultimately let Amazon and Google battle it out in the end. Many people are eyeing the NBA rights deal, set to expire in 2024-2025, as the next big-ticket item to be bid on, and you can expect that Apple will look to make a play there as well.
However, as Forbes’ David Bloom noted in the wake of the Sunday Ticket deal, Apple is being quite strategic about what deals make the most sense for them. As Bloom notes, they did not drop out because they couldn’t afford the deal, with a market cap of $2.15 trillion. Instead, they have decided to spend on original scripted content (more on that from SRI’s Tora Squire here) and focus their sports-rights spend on deals like the MLS.
In comparison to the Sunday Ticket deal, which is only a slice of the overall media rights for the NFL, Apple’s MLS deal “covers pretty much everything MLS is doing – in-market, out-of-market, mobile, online, domestic, international – and reaches an audience that’s far younger than any other major U.S. sport.” This reach of exclusivity, as well as the ten-year term of the deal, creates a structure where Apple can create a deep and meaningful partnership with the league and its fans.
Speaking of the fans, it’s worth interrogating what the new deal will mean for the fan experience in MLS. On the plus side, the promise of Apple’s involvement will be centered around an improvement in the broadcast quality and availability. As mentioned above, an MLS Season Pass subscription will allow fans access to all MLS games in one centralized location instead of being spread across multiple networks and will include custom, premium content made just for the app. In addition, anyone who has watched an Apple Friday Night Baseball broadcast has likely noticed the high picture quality and standard of production on the telecast itself. Apple will bring that same quality to their MLS broadcasts, and the investment in technology throughout the league is being made to support that effort.
On the downside for fans, MLS games will now require a subscription to MLS Season Pass. For context, as of this summer, Apple was reported to have just a 6% share of the streaming television market, meaning many fans will have to pay extra in order to see games as compared to the old deal where they could be seen on terrestrial or cable television. This paywall could serve as a real hindrance to a sport in such a crucial moment for growth, and while season ticket holders are being offered free subscriptions to the service, those are not the growth targets that MLS and Apple are after.
In summary, both parties should benefit greatly from this deal – with the MLS growing reach in terms of audience and revenue partners, and Apple getting the kind of streaming deal that makes sense for them, along with an opportunity to be a part of the MLS’s further growth trajectory over the next ten years.
But at SRI, we view these things through the lens of what it could mean in terms of opportunity for great executive talent. As Apple and its competitors get further into the market of sports streaming, they will need to continue to build the teams and the infrastructure to support and generate content for these broadcasts. There will continue to be an appetite from these companies to bring in executives with the experience in producing great sports broadcasts along with the openness and creativity to innovate. It’s crucial that at these moments and areas of convergence between verticals that leaders look for great talent in adjacent industries who can help them to realize their business goals.