MLS x Apple pricing for 2023 announced: is it a good deal?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

MLS just made the long-awaited announcement regarding pricing for its new all-encompassing streaming package through Apple:

If you are already an Apple TV+ subscriber: $12.99/month or $79/season

If you are not an Apple TV+ subscriber: $14.99/month or $99/season

Let's look at this pricing from various sets of overlapping perspectives.

(1) Price

It's expensive.

ESPN+ (where most out-of-market regular-season MLS games were hosted in the past) was $7/mo, while Bally Sports was widely ridiculed when it announced a $20/mo streaming service to supplement its RSNs, and that would have included multi-sport inventory depending on market (baseball, hockey, etc.). So $15/mo is pretty steep for a single-league package that has a relatively low profile in North America outside its core markets.

It's a good deal.

Back in January 2022 I wrote a piece analyzing the potential cost of watching Sporting Kansas City. Because SKC's regular-season matches were split up between local RSN, free over the air (OTA), free online (Twitter), and cable (ESPN, FS1), the actual cost to watch all of SKC's season came out to $350 (!), despite four of those being free, because you also had to keep subscribing to expensive cable packages to get the once-a-month ESPN/FS1 games. From that perspective, $99/year seems like a steal, especially when you don't have to platform-surf week after week looking for the match.

(2) Fan location

Local fan

With a few exceptions, most local MLS fans needed a subscription to watch regular-season matches (an RSN or equivalent). These were not cheap, whether through a Bally Sports direct offer or through a more traditional cable package. A few lucky areas had OTA access (including, as it turns out, Kansas City, after the team told Bally to take a hike not long after my original piece came out and produced their own free OTA and streaming service for 2022). So the competitiveness of the Apple deal partially hinges on whether you're losing free access or gaining cheaper access.

Distant fan

Non-local fans could subscribe to ESPN+ for half the price of Apple, so there's definitely a price hike here (though not for all games, leading to the next point).

(3) Game inventory

Past: fragmented

In the old model, there was no way to watch a given team's entire regular season (much less other league games) without subscribing to and accessing multiple different services and platforms. It wasn't even easy to watch all games on the same device; on any given week you might need an antenna, a web browser, a cable connection, or an app, leading to maddening pre-game scrambles to get your tech and logins in order. I think it's fair to say nobody liked this system.

Future: comprehensive

Now, every single game league-wide is on the same platform. There is no question at any point about how and where you can watch a match. Even if you have no interest in the rest of the league, there's value here. How much is your time and sanity worth?

(4) Playoffs

All of the above related primarily to regular-season games. By the playoffs, fans were mostly forced to subscribe to expensive cable packages to access ESPN/FS1, often for a single game if they were primarily interested in their own team.

Here's where I think the Apple deal adds significant value: you may be paying more for the regular season now, but you may well earn that cash back when the playoffs arrive and you don't have to scramble for a cable package.

(5) Broader fandom

What are your other sports-viewing habits? Are you primarily an MLS fan and don't care about ESPN and FS1 otherwise? Were you already subscribing to cable for other reasons, or an out-of-market fan who already had ESPN+ for world sports, making watching MLS "free"?

(6) Unit cost

Even at just one game per week, $15/mo works out to $3.50/game. Is that a fair price for entertainment? Renting a movie on Amazon costs $4 for a similar 2-hour window. On a one-time basis it's pretty competitive, but do you rent movies every week for 8+ months? Looked at another way, $15/mo is less than the average commuter spends on gas-station coffee. Is soccer worth more than crappy coffee?


How this price point affects you will really, really depend on where you fall in the Venn diagram of all these factors. Brace yourself for lots of commentary based on anecdotal experience. Overall, it seems to me that MLS and Apple are betting heavily on customers who are strongly interested in MLS, and not worrying so much about casual fans (though the promise of lots of free games and co-broadcasts with traditional outlets will still place the game before such eyeballs). There's definitely a risk of subscription burnout, with some fans just not wanting to add yet another package to all the others.

My personal feeling is that this is still a good choice for the league. MLS is strong in its niches but nowhere near overtaking, say, the NFL. It has vibrant local fans and an increasing global audience given the rising number of players moving into and out of MLS (say, from South America to MLS to Europe). I think it's a fool's errand to keep trying to compete with bigger fish for random eyeballs on ESPN. And many of the other services (RSNs, ESPN+) are rumored to be hemorrhaging money, so maybe the Apple deal is what sports need to cost nowadays?

Every other major league in North America remains stuck in the RSN/fragmentation broadcast quagmire. Ironically, the NFL, long the bastion of "easy to watch", is actually going backward by dumping inventory into Amazon. In contrast, globally-minded North American soccer fans are now trained to think that soccer should be universally available through a simple streaming package, which is how they already access EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, or Serie A. MLS is actually normalizing their broadcast platform to global soccer, which seems sensible and forward-thinking to me.

If nothing else, the league deserves credit for being willing to try something new in the face of a current system that every sports fan hates but no other league is willing to change. It'll lose some fans and gain others; only time will tell if this approach was "right". But I'm glad they're trying something new and I'm willing to give it a chance.

This post created by a member of The Blue Testament community. Opinions are all their own.

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