Real Salt Lake fans can hear the familiar voice of color analyst Brian Dunseth on TV again this season. He may not break set pieces or call out snap-down headers on every RSL game.
Major League Soccer has added Dunseth to their roster of on-air talent as the league consolidates all of their team’s broadcasts onto a single platform: Apple TV. For RSL fans, it means the end of the familiar pairing of Dunseth and play-by-play man David James, along with the end of all RSL games free to watch.
But for sports watchers in general – not just football fans, but jazz fans, Utes fans, you name it – it could mean some bigger news. In fact, the Apple deal could offer some clues about the future of sports television.
Let’s dive in.
The new MLS deal
Here’s why: In 2019, the MLS told its clubs not to sign any local TV deals beyond the 2022 season so they could bundle all their local and national broadcast and streaming rights into one big package. That meant RSL’s local TV broadcast deal with KMYU (KUTV’s sister station) and streaming deal with KSL also had to be in place by then.
These deals were pretty good for RSL fans. KMYU was broadcast on most cable and satellite packages, as well as free over the air. On the streaming side, RSL fans could watch their games for free on KSL.com. But it also had some limitations. If matches were televised nationally, they could not be broadcast locally. The production values also left a lot to be desired. For example, while most local MLS broadcasts used seven to eight cameras per game, Apple plans to use 12 for each game, according to The Athletic.
And of course that’s the critical part: For RSL and the league, the money earned fell somewhere between little and not at all.
By signing a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple, America’s fifth-largest professional sports league became the first to release all of its local and national content on a streaming platform. Now all MLS games are in one place, completely blackout free. Apple also has rights to the Leagues Cup, MLS Next, MLS Next Pro games and the league’s All-Star Game.
In addition, 34 select MLS games will be broadcast on Fox or Fox Sports 1.
MLS will produce all broadcasts itself and will hire “at least” 12 English speaking teams and 12 Spanish speaking teams with play-by-play voices and color commentators to announce every game in both languages. (French-speaking teams will also provide commentary on Canadian teams’ games.) Each game will be broadcast in-studio: before the game, halftime and after the game, along with a Saturday night whiparound show showing highlights of all games. (Think NFL Redzone.) Fans can jump in and start over at any time, or start with the live action.
However, all commentators do not necessarily have to be the locals. Instead, the league will only create one English-language broadcast pairing for each game between the two teams. The league is initially expected to mix and match its play-by-play announcers and color commentators fairly freely. 49 broadcasters in various roles have been announced by the league and a third round of recruitment is expected by the league’s season opener.
I took a look at the new product this week. In addition to match coverage, Apple also produces other MLS and RSL specific content. At launch, the RSL page of the Apple TV app will feature interviews with Justen Glad and Nick Rimando, past notable highlight goals, along with archived classic RSL games back to 2019. Every game this season will be available to watch or rewatch instantly as well after game end.
Thanks to the deal, all MLS games this season, with limited exceptions, will start at 7:30 a.m. local time on Saturdays and select Wednesdays. For RSL home games at America First Field, this means 7:30 p.m. MT kickoffs. The season starts on February 25th for all teams; RSL’s first game is at 20:30 MT in Vancouver. iPads will be made available to coaches at all games, just as Microsoft’s Surface tablets are used by NFL coaches. MLS jerseys will also feature an Apple logo on the sleeve this year.
Essentially, they’re trying to make every local MLS show feel like a national televised game – with the strengths and weaknesses of that approach.
Profits for clubs, costs for fans
A particular strength is that the clubs earn more money. Overall, one estimate said each club should earn around $7.5 million a year from the TV deal. Add that to the $6 million per year the team earns from America First Field sponsorship, and it’s enough to cover RSL’s entire player payroll for 2022 from those revenue streams alone. Those player salaries totaled $10.5 million, according to data from the MLS Players’ Association.
When you add all the other sources of revenue for RSL – ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and so on – it’s clear that the club should be making a significant amount of money. And fans should therefore expect the front office to act on its new budget, including other spending such as the team’s record $3.1 million spent on winger Carlos Andrés Gómez this offseason.
Of course, every MLS team will get the same boost, so expect all teams to become more active in the international transfer market. RSL will need to improve more than the competition if they want to advance beyond the playoff margins they’ve been working on for much of the last decade and instead compete for MLS trophies.
However, all of this comes at a price for the fans. To watch all of this season’s MLS games, including RSL, fans will need to pay Apple $99 per year for the MLS Season Pass, or $14.99 per month. Registrations open Wednesday.
However, there are some discounts and ways for fans to mitigate the full cost. Those who already have an Apple TV+ package get a discount: $79 for the season or $12.99/month. Six different people can share the burden of one MLS Season Pass account through Apple’s Family Sharing system.
In addition, six MLS games per week will be shown for free on the Apple TV app outside of the MLS Season Pass paywall, which accounts for about 40% of the league’s schedule.
RSL season ticket holders who have linked their account with new ticket provider SeatGeek and paid at least $100 for their season tickets will also get free access to the MLS Season Pass. According to the club, emails will be sent to these people on Wednesday.
Is this the future?
All in all, a model that stands out. NBA, MLB, and NHL executives are all watching how MLS’ Apple TV deal is progressing, especially with news of the impending bankruptcy of Bally Sports — the regional sports networks that own local broadcast rights to 16 NBA, 14 MLB, and 12 NHL teams.
This bankruptcy calls into question the regional sports fees owed to the clubs. In particular, rights contracts between Bally Sports and the teams may be terminated or payments may be suspended during insolvency. It looks perfectly plausible: Bally has $2 billion in rights payments to make this year, but only has $585 million in cash on hand. My math degree tells me… it won’t do it.
“You’re looking at a potential rewrite of the entire regional sports business on the other side of this reorganization,” Davis Hebert, a senior telecoms analyst at debt research firm CreditSights, told Bloomberg.
MLB is reportedly looking into rescinding its local broadcast rights, according to Bloomberg. The NBA and NHL’s plans have been less well reported, but one has to wonder if they’re considering the same thing. And in that scenario, it would make sense for these leagues to bring their local rights into a national rights negotiation, just like MLS did.
Essentially, imagine a better version of the NBA League Pass product with no local power outages for fans – a dream come true for many.
The Jazz are currently trying to figure out their local broadcast schedules for the 2023-24 season and beyond. Their current deal with AT&T SportsNet pays them about $25 million a season, but Bally’s bankruptcy and cable cutting in general put that amount at risk if the Jazz look to open up their shows to more fans.
If Apple can turn a profit despite its $2.5 billion investment, interest in developing a similar product for the more popular American sports will increase. You’re making a double bet: both on the future of people paying to stream sports and on football in the United States.
Is Apple’s Model the New Future of Sports Watching in America? We will see.
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