Apple TV+ Push Into Sports Won’t Come Easy

Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Apple is looking to beef up its not-so-new-anymore video streaming service with sports content. 

That’s what was suggested by Recode senior correspondent Peter Kafka, who on Thursday tweeted that Apple hired Jim DeLorenzo, former head of sports for Amazon Video, to “head up sports for its Apple TV unit.” 

No official word from Apple, so details are scant, but there have been steady murmurs since December that the company was looking to acquire sports rights, namely those of the Pac-12 (a west coast college sports conference), so the news isn’t completely coming from left field.

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, live sports of any kind would likely change the appeal, and certainly the originals-focused ethos, of Apple TV+ to many consumers.

The degree to which Apple TV+ would be lifted would of course be dependent on which sports rights Apple acquired, with exclusive games from any of the major national leagues likely providing a bigger face lift to the service than Pac-12 games.

For example, Verizon in a December 2019 survey found that 63% of sports fans would consider paying (or paying more if they already do so) for a live sports streaming service if it had coverage of sports that interested them.

But we must remember that the Apple TV app that houses Apple TV+ already technically provides access to other sports, so long as you have access to things like DAZN, ESPN, or NBC. So live sports might not change the Apple TV+ experience as monumentally for certain consumers that can already authenticate into TV anywhere apps. 

Meanwhile, the persistent willingness of some to use more shadowy means in the name of free live sports would also weaken a live sports play from Apple TV+. A March 2020 survey by Ampere Analysis/Synamedia found that 51% of sports fans still use pirate services to watch live sports monthly.

And these predicted impacts are all assuming Apple is even able to secure a marquee sports rights package, many of which are locked up for years. Fox Sports has the rights to the MLB’s marquee events until 2028, while ESPN and TNT have the rights to show certain NBA games until 2025.

Sure, there are earlier rights opportunities: Certain rights packages from the NFL and the MLB only run through 2021, which Apple could kick the tires on. 

But it’s worth noting that some major leagues might be reluctant to sell a valuable rights package to Apple, even though it’s cash-rich ($192 billion cash on hand), if the reach of Apple TV+ doesn’t seriously grow quickly. 

Bloomberg in late May reported Apple TV+ had about 10 million sign-ups by February, but that only half of those were active users. These aren’t ghost town-level numbers, but it’s not as impressive when you keep in mind Apple TV+ launched globally in November 2019, and the massive iOS reach Apple has. 

Contrast this (alleged) reach of Apple TV+ to Prime Video, which could end up chasing more NFL games and is accessible by 150 million Prime members globally. 

This all doesn’t mean that Apple shouldn’t pursue sports at all. In fact, evolving the Apple TV+ content strategy seems needed at this juncture, and Apple has already signaled its flexibility by opening up to licensing content

Rather, this is more of a reminder that it will take some time before Apple bears any serious fruit from a live sports play. In the meantime, Apple has the option of more quickly trying to accelerate subscriber growth by doing things like licensing older sports content, or even launching a bundle that ties together its various media services (code uncovered recently from new iOS software suggests Apple hasn’t abandoned the bundle idea yet). 

But given the fact that Apple has already offered free 1 year trials and potentially as low as 10% only signed up for the trials, maybe trying to appeal on new content, and not dollars saved, is a better idea this time around.