Inter Miami's Noah Allen in front of an AppleTV+ sideline board. Mar 23, 2024; Harrison, New Jersey, USA; Inter Miami CF defender Noah Allen (32) in action during the first half against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

There are obvious downsides to printing anonymous comments, but there can be benefits there as well. One of those advantages is increased candor from people when a comment doesn’t have their name attached. And if those people are sufficiently important, that can sometimes be interesting.

The latest example of that comes from Tom Bogert and Paul Tenorio of The Athletic anonymously speaking to 30 chief soccer officers (not all with that exact title, but generally the people in charge of soccer operations for each team) across MLS. And it’s particularly seen in the comments they got on the Apple TV+ broadcasting deal, specifically with one exec taking a shot at past partners like ESPN and Fox Sports:

Executives around MLS remain optimistic that Apple will help propel the league into a new era of growth.

“The streaming play was the right one and we partnered with a company that wants to be innovative,” one said.

“It was a huge step forward for the league,” said another. “Finally, we have a media partner who seems vested in the growth and improvement of the league.”

While that’s probably not something those past media partners love to hear, the exec’s claim here has some support from an objective viewpoint. First off, Apple has significantly more games than any past partner. The most recent U.S. MLS media deal before last year’s Apple deal saw English broadcasts of national games split across ESPN and Fox, plus Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision and local broadcasts.

Now, every game is produced by Apple and aired on AppleTV+’s MLS Season Pass globally. Some are also simulcast on Fox and Univision in the U.S., and on TSN and RDS in Canada, and some are available without an AppleTV+ or MLS Season Pass subscription, but MLS Season Pass is the league’s primary distribution for all games. So, just from a tonnage perspective, Apple is broadcasting much more MLS action than any individual company ever has.

Tonnage alone doesn’t necessarily lead to investment, of course. If this was a minor deal for Apple, they wouldn’t really be strongly incentivized to grow and boost the league. But while a $2.5 billion deal (over 10 years) isn’t massive compared to the overall size of that tech behemoth (they had $119.58 billion in revenues and $33.92 billion in net income in the fourth quarter of 2023 alone), it is the biggest sports deal they’ve struck for AppleTV+ to date. And sports appears to be a key part of the strategy to try and grow that service.

And the 10-year term and global rights here (very important considering Lionel Messi in particular) do give Apple notable incentive to try and boost the league. Having full control of the rights means they’ll reap all the broadcasting rewards from MLS growth, whereas past broadcasters would only have picked up a small portion of any enlarged pie. So it does seem fair to say they have more of a vested interest in growing the league than past broadcasters.

Is that actually “a huge step forward”? That’s more debatable. Working (mostly, outside linear simulcasts) with one broadcast partner has advantages, but also disadvantages. Split national deals have the advantages of multiple networks promoting and airing matches, and that’s why most professional leagues operating in the U.S. (including the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) have them. And not being on ESPN at all for the first time since the league’s 1996 formation presumably doesn’t help MLS coverage there (although the level to which a rights deal leads to ESPN coverage outside matches has long been debated, and many fans of the leagues ESPN does have broadcast deals with aren’t exactly thrilled with the coverage they get beyond games).

What is clear is that moving to Apple takes MLS from being a small fish in the big pond of the overall rights ESPN and Fox have to being the biggest fish in a smaller pond. And overall, it seems to be working okay for them, with reports of two million subscribers to MLS Season Pass by the end of 2023. (It’s unclear how many of those are from promotional freebies and how many are from international subscribers, and Apple has been less than communicative about actual numbers, but that’s a big jump over the previous report of almost one million in July.)

There is still some discussion about the production of games and how well that’s going. And that back-and-forth is expressed by execs in this Athletic piece as well. One remark that’s unusual to hear comes from the discussion of Apple broadcasts as “state media”:

Another executive felt there is a clear “state media” feel to the broadcasts.

“I want the commentators to be less company men and more honest,” the executive said. “It became very boring because it was very milquetoast in terms of commenting. No one criticized anything. That’s just not good commentating if you’re not willing to say anything interesting.”

Yes, this definitely does seem like “state media” at times; more criticism could be welcome in the right spots. And there have been questions about some of the personnel decisions made, including moving away from local broadcasters and parting ways with veterans like Adrian Healey. There are other suggestions for broadcast improvement from these execs as well, including employing more coaches and execs who can speak to roster construction.

But there are also some positive comments on the broadcasts. And one further exec comment there illustrates that Apple has been responsive to feedback. And that exec adds that there’s significant optimism within the league about how well this is working and will work:

Apple’s willingness to shift on the fly impressed execs.

“They are one of the richest companies in the world and they have the wherewithal to see what needs to be tweaked and then execute on that,” one said. “As long as we are with them, it’s going to continually improve.”

MLS looks set to be with Apple for at least nine more years. (There is reportedly an unspecified opt-out for Apple if subscription numbers are too low, but that doesn’t seem like an issue right now.) So we’ll see if the broadcasting does continually improve there, and if the Apple investment leads to the league growth these execs are hoping for.

[The Athletic]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.