Major League Soccer made major headlines on Tuesday by announcing a first-of-its-kind broadcast deal. The league agreed to a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple that will start next season and see all MLS games broadcast on Apple TV+.
For many reasons, this is a great deal for MLS and its fans. For one, this is a much bigger financial deal than many expected the league to get for its broadcast rights, as reports circulated that the league was struggling to come to any agreement. Additionally, fans will have all of their MLS games in one place with no blackouts and at set times, making it easier for those interested to find them. Those who are season ticket holders of MLS teams will not have to pay for this new platform either, encourage more attendance at home matches.
But there are two sides to every story and this deal also has some unintended — or maybe overlooked? — consequences.
Along with the announcement of this Apple TV deal, MLS announced that there would be no more regional broadcasts for local fans. While this may seem to be a positive for cord-cutting supporters who have lost some of the regional sports channels on their streaming service — like many in Columbus — it also means the average MLS fan will now have to seek out and pay for the local games rather than flipping through their cable or streaming channels. Making a sport that is still attempting to grow in this country harder to find for those that aren’t diehard is a step backward.
The situation for bars or restaurants that have traditionally shown games available through cable or satellite packages becomes more complicated as well. Fans looking for games outside of their own home will have to hope local establishments get MLS’s Apple TV subscription and familiarize their servers on how to access it.
While watching games at home may be easier with this new broadcast deal, finding a place to watch MLS games while out could become a bigger challenge than it currently is in most markets.
This approach differs from the NFL model, however, in that the NFL hasn’t had local broadcast crews for years and never risked over half of the league’s broadcast crews losing their job with this change. Although it’s possible, maybe even likely, that MLS hires from already established crews, still a vast majority will be without an MLS TV position.
What makes this worse is current local TV crews were not given any sort of heads up that this was happening nor that an announcement was coming. Instead, these crews found out they could be without a job as soon as next year the same way everyone else did.
Some of these announcers have been a part of MLS since the early days and might be out of luck when it comes to next season. From a Columbus Crew perspective, Neil Sika has been a part of the club in some capacity since 2004 and began his first full season of calling games, first on the radio and then on television, in 2007. Jordan Angeli joined the Black & Gold broadcast team in 2020, the first female to hold a full-time TV analyst role in club history, and worked for the Colorado Rapids in various roles for four years prior. Brett Hiltbrand has provided hosting and sideline coverage since 2019, initially on a fill-in capacity before joining full-time in 2020.
All three are among the most talented in the MLS field — regardless of their Crew connections — and deserve to continue calling MLS games on television, but may not have that luxury if the league goes in a different direction.
And while the Apple TV deal will allow fans to select listening to the local radio broadcast, where available, instead of the TV broadcast, this typically comes with a delay that is not pleasant when trying to watch live sports.
In addition to cutting a number of the league’s television broadcasters, having only 10-14 crews means these announcers could be calling multiple games in a week. Given the focus local announce crews can currently give to their team — the Crew’s broadcast team is at each availability, watches practice multiple days per week and speaks with head coach Caleb Porter and players before each match — the insight fans have long enjoyed is likely to suffer.
Any new television deal MLS signed wasn’t going to be perfect. The MLS Live and packages similar to that have their drawbacks and the ESPN+ deal of the last few years was far from perfect. Many — fans especially — are likely to enjoy what Apple TV will provide MLS and there’s plenty to like about the deal.
But to say this deal doesn’t have its faults and may negatively affect many would be ignoring the other side of what’s coming to MLS over the next 10 seasons.