Minnesota United has a new TV home thanks to Apple, but you have to pay
After much publicity about Apple’s deal with Major League Soccer, the MLS Season Pass streaming service has arrived
When Minnesota United FC players hit the pitch at St. Paul’s Allianz Field this month, they’ll have something new on their uniforms: an Apple logo.
Yes, it’s that Apple, the maker of iPhone smartphones and AirPods earbuds, and the creator of the blockbuster soccer-themed “Ted Lasso” sitcom featuring the cranky Roy Kent and the ever-ebullient Dani Rojas.
That show has helped make the company a streaming-TV titan — and something of a soccer sensation — over the past three years.
Now Apple is going all-in with fútbol. It is the new broadcasting home of Major League Soccer, with the rights to transmit all games in the United States and about 100 other countries via its new MLS Season Pass. The streaming service launches today at a cost of about $15 a month, or about $100 per season.
For Minnesota United fans, this makes the 2023 MLS season exciting — and perhaps disorienting.
In June, for instance, came the sad news that Kyndra de St. Aubin and Callum Williams were out as the Loons’ primary personalities on TV broadcasts, apparently not part of Apple’s 10-year, $2.5-billion deal with the league. What the heck?
But hold on. MLS announced Jan. 10 that de St. Aubin was back in — one of dozens on a team of play-by-play, color-commentary and in-studio staff that MLS Season Pass was recruiting. Another such announcement this week revealed that Callum Williams also would be on board, along with former Loons and Nashville FC color commentator Jamie Watson.
This should come as a relief for the Minnesota United fans, but many of them are sure to be confused about how to sign up for and use MLS Season Pass — and possibly taken aback at the cost.
That’s the question hanging over this landmark but untested sports-streaming service that requires a recurring fee a la Disney+ or Netflix: Will this fly with the fans, or fizzle out? After all, it puts most if not all Minnesota United games behind a paywall that will be sure to spark some controversy.
This is a gamble, Minnesota United FC chief marketing officer John Guagliano acknowledges.
“For the fans, this is something new to figure out,” Guagliano said. “People are creatures of habit, and when you change something, it throws a little wrinkle in the match-day routine.”
But the upside is huge, he said. MLS Season Pass “is a one-stop shop” with few limitations for local pro-soccer enthusiasts and, he believes, well worth the price of admission.
So, how does this work?
Apple’s deal with MLS has given it near-absolute control over how games are offered to fans. The famously perfectionist company has harnessed this power to construct a streaming-sports network from the ground up, while purging longtime sports-broadcasting annoyances.
Loons fans no longer have to fret about when and where to catch a match. Everything is on MLS Season Pass.
Previously, Minnesota United games appeared on Bally Sports North (subscription TV service), The CW Twin Cities (regular TV via cable or antenna), and SKOR North (radio), with a handful of nationally televised games airing on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or Univisión.
Games on MLS Season Pass are on a more consistent schedule, too — typically on Saturdays and some Wednesdays.
All MLS regular-season matches, All MLS playoff and MLS Cup games, and every Leagues Cup matchup — in which MLS goes up against Mexico’s Liga MX — will be a tap or click away. Also up for grabs: hundreds of live games from the MLS NEXT youth league, and from the MLS NEXT Pro adult league that completes the pro-player pathway from MLS NEXT.
Certain matches will be nationally televised via Fox (home of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes), TelevisaUnivisión (home of Univisión) and others this season, but none will be exclusive to that linear-TV medium, and MLS Season Pass will simultaneously stream them. The SKOR North local-radio option is sticking around, too.
There are no blackouts. That is when a sports event scheduled to be televised is not aired in a particular media market. Apple has done away with this much-loathed practice.
MLS Season Pass broadcasts will include pregame shows, halftime shows, postgame wrap-ups and whip-around shows. Those who are late to a live-game start can still watch the match from the beginning.
MLS Season Pass is, of course, a chance for Apple to promote its brand and products. It touts its Apple TV streaming box as the ideal device for watching games. It has an Apple TV app on its other devices, such as iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers.
“But wait!” some fans might say. “What if we’re not Appleheads?” No problem. From its earliest streaming days, Apple has worked to get its Apple TV app on a wide range of non-Apple devices such as smart TVs (but only some brands and models), streaming boxes and dongles, gaming consoles, and even certain cable and satellite receivers.
Or just use MLS Season Pass in a web browser. That should work pretty well for users of Windows or Chrome OS computers, but maybe not so much for users of Android phones. Apple has yet to offer an Apple TV app for such Google-based mobile devices, so users are stuck with MLS in the Chrome browser on their cramped screens.
Cost, as noted, may be the sticking point for some; MLS Season Pass will run $14.99 a month or $99 for a full season. Those who subscribe to Apple TV+ will pay $12.99 or $79. Loons season ticket holders get MLS Season Pass as part of their price (with some restrictions).
Previously, many if not all Minnesota United games were available on TV for free (or the cost of basic cable).
“MLS Season Pass has the potential to be a very positive thing for MLS,” said Paul Tenorio, a reporter for the New York Times-owned The Athletic sports site. “But there’s also a lot of risk. Anytime you go behind a paywall, there is a different level of access.”
There are indications that fans might well pay. U.S. soccer fans are the most likely to cough up $20 per month to watch a season of games compared to fans of other sports, according to a study by Parks Associates, a Texas-based market-intelligence firm.
This comes amid an increasing migration by sports leagues away from linear broadcasting and to over-the-Internet streaming, Parks Associates notes. Amazon’s Prime Video offers NFL’s Thursday Night Football, while Google’s YouTube TV service recently acquired rights to NFL Sunday Ticket. Apple has had the rights to stream certain Major League Baseball games for a while.
“My guess, demographically, is that MLS fans are younger, wealthier and more tech-savvy,” said Jason Snell, an Apple-centric technology journalist who follows and sometimes writes about soccer. “They’re also used to being part of a sports minority. They have a hunger for it, and are used to hunting for it and paying for it.”
For them, he said, MLS Season Pass will be a no-brainer.
Fans won’t need an MLS Season Pass subscription to access some content. For instance, “MLS is Back” opening weekend later this month will be free to stream using the Apple TV app, as will occasional games during the season. In addition, a number of MLS and Leagues Cup matches will be free for subscribers of Apple TV+, the streaming-service where the Oscar best picture-winning “Coda” film, the computer-animated “Prehistoric Planet” documentary and “Ted Lasso” live.
What’s the local angle?
Cost aside, MLS Season Pass may well rise or fall based on how well it caters to the hardcore fans who want their teams’ culture properly showcased.
That’s why Apple has brought in broadcasting personalities who had previously worked for MLS teams. But how such staffers will be deployed remains unclear. Will the Minnesota trio on the announcers roster get to focus on the Loons, or games in this region? Apple says geographical “assignments” have yet to be announced.
In another nod to local fans, home games will have the option to switch from the service’s own play-by-play and to the local SKOR North radio broadcast within MLS Season Pass at any time. As such, “Apple is doing what I wish other streaming providers would commit to doing,” Snell said.
All matches will feature MLS commentary in Spanish as well as English, and matches in Canada will provide French commentary.
Apple also caters to the teams and their fan bases by providing “club rooms” for the organizations to use in a promotional capacity, and requiring them to keep the rooms generously stocked. (MLS Season Pass content is otherwise the responsibility of the league and Apple.)
During the preseason, that means drone tours of stadiums, video highlights of past games and seasons, player profiles, “sizzle” vids, full replays of classic matches, documentary-style segments, and tributes to the teams’ pageantry and rituals, such as Allianz Field’s Wonderwall. As the MLS season kicks off, the club rooms will fill up with player interviews, major-play recaps and behind-the-scenes storylines to complement the action on the field.
“We’re taking a lot of pride in the content we produce,” Guagliano said regarding the Loons’ club room. “It’s a one-stop location to follow the team’s players, rituals and history.”
This, he said, compensates for the loss of control now that broadcast production is largely out of the team’s hands. “There is give and take when you can’t tell your own story during a game,” as before, Guagliano said. “But when you go to a model like this, you have more eyeballs” on the action.
“Local” has another meaning in the MLS Season Pass context — it will be as simple for a soccer fan in Bogotá or London to see the matches as one in the United States. This will be a boon for families of the Loons’ international players who will finally be able to see their kids in action, live. So will all the rabid fans of those players back in their home countries.
Generally, with MLS Season Pass available in about 100 countries, Apple will be well positioned to build a world audience. Some might wonder why Apple would want to do this, “but what people in this country forget is the popularity of soccer globally,” Tenorio said. “I’ve heard that when MLS is on TV in England late at night or early in the morning, people will watch.”
Quality draws interest. MLS is not on par with the Bundesliga in Germany, LaLiga in Spain or England’s Premier League, Tenorio said, “but it is competitive with the next tier, the South American leagues, the Scandinavian leagues, the English Football League Championship.”
Besides, soccer fans are suckers for engaging stories no matter the point of origin, Tenorio said. “Compelling narratives drive an audience.”
Apple might also be going worldwide with MLS Season Ticket because of its purported ambitions to continue expanding its sports offerings, and not just in the United States. The company was recently rumored to be entering a bidding war for Premier League rights, which would make the firm a sports-streaming colossus.
Deploying Apple tech
Apple is making its MLS partnership a showcase for its tech.
In the Apple News app found on its smartphones, tablets and computers, users can select their favorite teams, and thereafter keep tabs on developments via the app’s recently unveiled sports section. The Loons portion of that app has been full of tumbleweeds in recent months but will be ratcheting up as the players hit the pitch.
Fans can do much the same on the Apple TV box by highlighting their favorite teams to more easily keep track of them, and setting up notifications for about-to-start games.
On iPhones, Loons fans will be alerted about impending action on the pitch, and kept in the know about how a match progresses via a feature called Live Activities. On Apple’s fanciest iPhones, that will involve a black oval dubbed the Dynamic Island at the top of the screen that will morph and enlarge as team info becomes available.
But Snell hopes Apple will experiment more aggressively, as “it has a level of control over broadcasts no one else has.” He has been underwhelmed by the company’s MLB streaming. “That is something to watch: are they going to innovate in how soccer is shown on TV?”
This might entail deploying more cameras that offer additional angles on the action — perhaps with the viewers able to select their preferred view. Maybe Apple could allow viewers to overlay their screens with statistics at the touch of an Apple TV Remote button.
“Apple has been rumored to be getting into virtual reality and augmented reality,” Snell said, which could create opportunities. “There could be an MLS user experience inside a VR headset, with viewers floating above the stadium or their luxury box.
“The shame would be if Apple doesn’t try and do something different,” Snell said.
Guagliano is all for innovation, but asks for patience.
“I’m very excited about the Apple ecosystem as it advances,” he said, “but right now we’re just trying to get this off the ground. You want to walk before you run.”
This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.