MLS Season Pass on Apple has thus far delivered on its most basic promises.
All matches have been available to stream at any time and without any regional blackout restrictions. There’s now a whiparound show, MLS 360, that provides an experience akin to NFL RedZone during MLS Matchdays. The MLS portion of Apple’s streaming platform also successfully now hosts full-match replays, highlights, and even streams of MLS NEXT Pro matches.
Having every single MLS match broadcast by the same service has made it easier than ever to keep track of the week-in, week-out grind of the MLS season—as long as you’re willing to pay the hefty price for MLS Season Pass (as much as $14.99 per month, though there are discounts and giveaways) and are comfortable using Apple’s streaming interface (which is not a given for everyone).
Gone are the days of wondering if New York City FC’s next match is airing live on the YES Network, or perhaps on YES but on tape delay after a Brooklyn Nets game, or maybe streaming exclusively on the YES App, or hey maybe it’s not on YES at all but is instead airing over on Univision?
The MLS-Apple deal has brought with it a consistency and uniformity to game coverage that was lacking when each MLS team was responsible for producing its own broadcasts, and when the MLS match schedule was less rigid and synchronized.
MLS and Apple are still in the earliest stages of their 10-year streaming deal and broadcast partnership, and it’s generally been a positive start, but the spotlight on Apple’s MLS coverage is about to get significantly brighter.
That’s thanks to the pending arrival of the biggest star the league and professional soccer in America has ever seen, Lionel Messi. Messi will bring infinitely more attention to MLS and its broadcasts, and Apple and MLS will also be hoping Messi brings lots of new Season Pass subscribers with him.
What will those new viewers and subscribers sprinkled across the globe think when they enter the MLS-on-Apple content ecosystem? There are some areas of concern that MLS and Apple should look to address now that this is about to be the streaming home for one of the best players to walk the planet.
Too many cooks
Upwards of 50 broadcasters were hired for this inaugural season of MLS-Apple streaming, which is proving to be too many. The large roster of match announcers and analysts is being asked to constantly rotate week-to-week, and it’s having some detrimental effects.
Some common complaints about Apple’s announcers have started to resonate among frequent MLS viewers. They struggle to connect with the local audiences of the teams they’re commentating on, unable to consistently hold informed discussions about the teams, their players, and their season storylines. Broadcasts too often feature general chatter about MLS or the sport at large. Perhaps most concerning, announcers are still frequently mispronouncing player and staff member names, a fact pointed out (though not directed explicitly at Apple’s crews) by an active FC Dallas broadcaster.
I think these issues could be directly linked to the constant yo-yoing of announcers across the country from match to match. Heavy announcer rotation might alleviate scheduling and travel concerns raised by the hectic MLS schedule, but the lack of consistency isn’t helping the on-air product.
The assignments often feel as though they’ve been made at random. NYCFC have had eight different people do play-by-play across their first 20 matches, a constant shuffle that has not been well-received, at least if our readers are any indication. Our Player Ratings form for each match includes an option to grade the announcers, and the Apple booth has averaged a sad 4.4 across the 18 matches for which we’ve done the ratings.
There are also a significant number of in-studio hosts and analysts spread across match day coverage, be it pre- or post-match or on MLS 360. While they are all generally Fine, there also aren’t standout personalities who anchor the non-match coverage, a shortcoming compared to every other current soccer broadcaster.
MLS and Apple have yet to find a studio mix that can create and sustain conversation among themselves the way that CBS/Paramount+ has in Kate Abdo, Thierry Henry, Jaime Carragher, and Micah Richards, or on the level of NBC with Rebecca Lowe and the Robbies Mustoe and Earle.
The potential is there, as MLS and Apple have hired many talented people, but they have yet to utilize the right ones in the right ways.
Superficial team-by-team coverage
The decision to centralize all pre- and post-match coverage feels like another misstep. The promise of actual pre- and post-match coverage was tantalizing heading into the Apple streaming days, as NYCFC never really had this when on the YES Network.
What has actually materialized, though, has been more nationally focused, not dedicated to deeply analyzing a game you are about to watch, or just finished watching.
If the play-by-play teams are too inconsistent and don’t regularly capture what’s going on with individual teams, and the pre- and post-match coverage ends up only focused on your team’s match at a surface level, where is, say, an NYCFC fan supposed to turn to fill the Joe Tolleson and Ian Joy-shaped holes in their lives?
The days of local TV broadcasters who call every match a team plays have ended in the Apple Era, and even the local radio sync option meant to replicate that experience leaves something to be desired, since it’s only available for home games and doesn’t include the option for the Spanish radio feed.
Don’t expect to find in-depth team coverage via ancillary programming added to AppleTV outside of match days. There’s very little new content showing up on the streaming platform when there’s not a game being played, certainly nothing similar to what CBS Sports has developed with its daily Morning Footy talk show.
All the eggs seem to have been put in the MLS 360 whiparound show basket, which is another all-encompassing MLS-wide product meant to cater more to “fans of the league” than fans of its individual clubs. MLS 360 is a great concept still somewhat bogged down by its ill-timed commercial breaks and the unwieldy presence of four co-hosts who all want to talk.
It would be nice to redirect some of the energy of bits like this Ian Joy studio cameo before the Hudson River Derby into actually drilling down more regularly on individual teams.
MLS Season Pass? More like “Messi Season Pass”
Bringing Lionel Messi into the fold this summer is undeniably huge for the league and for Apple’s Season Pass subscription numbers. Those subscription numbers are already reportedly strong in the early going, according to both Apple executive Eddy Cue’s recent statements, and a new report that claims MLS is about to cross a threshold to begin getting a cut of subscription revenue from Apple.
I worry about how the presence of the legendary Argentine will tilt match day coverage which already leans more toward “generally about MLS.” We’re already getting lots of Messi talk from the Apple talent with his signing still not official and his debut still many weeks away, which on one hand is unavoidable and necessary, but on the other, takes time away from covering any of the other ongoing big stories among the teams and players who have been playing in the league all season.
The fact that Apple has made MLS matches universally accessible and has made them look great thanks to generally high-quality production of matches and their in-studio segments will be huge for tapping into the Messi Stan market. There just feels like a real risk that the other 28 teams in the league might fade more into the background when all eyes turn to Inter Miami CF and its big FC Barcelona reunion.
Watching MLS has gotten easier and somewhat better in these early Apple days, but lots of room for improvement remains. I worry that the focus is about to shift all in the direction of covering Messi, which might come at the expense of improving the more nuts-and-bolts parts of covering the league he’s about to join.