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Is Apple’s MLS Deal a Blueprint for What a Streaming NFL Sunday Ticket Could Be?

Matt Tamanini

On Tuesday, Major League Soccer and Apple announced a historic partnership to bring every single MLS game for the next decade to the streaming service. While this was not the first live sports rights deal that the tech company has entered into, it is certainly the most expansive and could prove to be the blueprint for how the company looks to disrupt and revolutionize streaming in the future.

While onlookers and football fans alike have been waiting for official word for months, reports have been circulating for quite a while that Apple is one of the finalists to secure the rights to the NFL’s most coveted package, the NFL Sunday Ticket after the league’s deal with DIRECTV expires following this season. While some believe that Apple already has the rights sown up, others still think that Amazon — who recently secured the exclusive rights to “Thursday Night Football” — is still in the mix for the league’s out-of-market package.

If Apple were to land the Sunday Ticket rights, it could cost them upwards of $2.5 billion per year, 10x what its base agreement with MLS would be. However, one major difference between the packages is that for the MLS, none of the games that Apple will stream will be hampered by local blackout restrictions, that would not be the case for the Sunday Ticket; however, the tech company might just have a workaround in mind for that.

Blackout, Blackout

If you’re unfamiliar with broadcasting blackouts, what that means is that anyone who subscribes to the Apple-backed MLS streaming service (more on that in a minute) will be able to watch whatever games they want, no matter where they are in the country and in the world. However, on the Sunday Ticket front, those games are currently governed by blackout rules that prohibit games from being viewed on any platform (streaming, satellite, etc.) when the viewer is in the market of one of the teams participating. The idea behind such rules is to prioritize the extremely lucrative deals made with traditional broadcast networks, forcing fans to watch non-nationally televised games on either CBS or Fox.

NFL Sunday Ticket

NFL Sunday Ticket is a subscription video streaming service that allows football fans to watch every live out-of-market NFL game on Sunday afternoons. It is included free for new DirecTV subscribers (allowing streaming through the NFL Sunday Ticket App), or it can be purchased as a standalone streaming product if you live in a dorm or apartment without access to the satellite version of NFL Sunday Ticket.

Unlike NFL RedZone, which bounces from game to game, Sunday Ticket is superior for fans who want to see every play of their favorite teams, even if they don’t live where the games are locally televised.

Sunday Ticket offers three plans: the Student Plan for $99.96 / year, the To Go Plan for $293.96 / year, and the Max Plan for $395.99 / year.

This works out great for the NFL’s legacy TV partners, but as more and more consumers move away from traditional television, it becomes increasingly difficult — and expensive — to watch all of the games that one might want.

While the NFL is not likely to give up on blackout restrictions anytime soon, Apple’s deal with the MLS does remove a major pain point for customers who have cut the cord but still want to follow their favorite teams. If this proves to be successful — both with viewers and financially — it could very well end up laying the groundwork for football’s further migration away from its increasingly antiquated broadcast rules.

Pay to Play

Another innovative component of the deal between the MLS and Apple is that while all of the league’s games will be streaming, they won’t all be streaming on the company’s flagship streamer Apple TV+. While the announcement said that “a broad selection” will be available for free to the service’s subscribers — and a “limited number” for free to all viewers via the Apple TV app — the totality of the package will be available on a yet-undefined MLS-specific streaming service.

No pricing details have been announced for the service, but the move is curious, especially considering that the NFL is reportedly preparing to launch its own streaming service ahead of the new season. The plan apparently is for the league to launch NFL Plus (or maybe NFL+, who knows?) in July at a $5 per month price point.

While there will be original team-created content, radio broadcasts, podcasts, and more available on the app, the draw of the service is expected to be the ability for fans to watch live games on the streamer, much like they previously had been able to via Yahoo Sports, various cell phone carriers, and the NFL app.

Now, while Sunday Ticket has to contend with local blackout rules, NFL Plus/+ works in the opposite way, providing access to only the local and national games already available in an individual’s specific market. This makes for a much more convenient and cost-effect stackable bundle along with Sunday Ticket than having to sign up for a cable, satellite, or live TV streaming subscription in order to watch games on local channels.

Earlier this spring, it was reported that in addition to Sunday Ticket, Apple was looking to acquire all of the NFL's available media rights, including NFL Media, which would be the company behind the soon-to-launch streamer.

While any changes to NFL’s broadcast deals — including blackout windows — would have to be negotiated years in advance, if Apple was to own the rights to both the Sunday Ticket and NFL+, the tech giant could package them together in a bundle that essentially gave football fans access to all games in one convenient streaming location.

This theoretical option would almost assuredly cost more than NFL+’s $5 per month, but Sunday Ticket currently runs anywhere from $293.94 to $395.94 on DIRECTV, so if Apple wanted to do everything it could to attract more customers to its services, coming in at a more moderate price point and perhaps providing substantial discounts for Apple TV+ subscribers could make for a deal that football fans can’t refuse.

The soon-to-launch MLS streamer would obviously have to operate differently than any bundled NFL deals, but the idea behind a blackout-free, paid subscription service to view all games would almost certainly be viewed as a much better option for cord-cutting fans than having to jump through the various hoops presented by DIRECTV, cable companies, and live TV streaming services. And when it comes to tech companies upsetting conventional apple carts (no pun intended), no one does it better than Apple.

Apple TV+

Apple TV+ is a subscription video streaming service for $6.99 a month that includes high-quality originals shows and movies including Best Picture winner “CODA,” popular sitcom “Ted Lasso,” and dramas like “The Morning Show” and “For All Mankind.” Apple TV+ is also home to MLB baseball games on Friday nights.

They have titles coming from Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Jason Momoa, J.J. Abrams, M. Night Shyamalan, Jennifer Garner, and Octavia Spencer.

If you purchase an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV, you can get a free year of Apple TV+.

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