The Apple-MLS Deal Should Panic RSNs and Will Restrict MLS Growth

Apple MLS Rights Deal
Illustration: VIP+: Adobe Stock

Hidden in the details of the MLS’ groundbreaking rights deal with Apple was a kernel of information that has the potential to upend one of the most lucrative areas in U.S. cable television:

MLS games will no longer be available on local regional sports networks (RSNs).

RSNs carry local games of regional sports teams even when the national rights may be on a streaming service. They are among the most expensive channels in the cable bundle, which is why VMVPDs like YouTube TV have been dropping carriage of them.

As standalone services, they are even more expensive, like the newly announced New England Sports Network (NESN) service ($29.99 a month) or the forthcoming Sinclair-owned Bally Sports+ ($19.99 a month).

The fact that a sports league like the MLS, even if it is a distant sixth place in popularity among domestic leagues, has opted to pull its local TV rights and put them solely on a streaming service will be giving RSN executives anxiety.

If this ends up being more lucrative than traditional TV, which is already being squeezed by ever-increasing sports rights and declining subscribers, what’s to stop bigger sports available on RSNs (NBA, NHL, MLB) from following the MLS and selling local rights to a streaming service? If any of the sports RSNs rely more on than MLS did so, their position in the cable lineup would look shakier.

In fairness, the MLS doesn’t have as much to lose as other sports. It is barely growing in terms of viewers. Audiences of the marquee MLS Cup Final game, with five of the last six on broadcast television, remain considerably below the 2016 and 2018 games. True, the last three years have each seen slightly more viewers for each final, but true growth is a long-term trend, and on that measure, MLS is not growing.

Locking the vast majority of games away on a subscription tier — some will be available to Apple TV+ subscribers, a few will be simulcast on national TV — is less of a risk than a sport like NASCAR or the MLB. With a smaller audience base, the dedicated ones who are watching will be more passionate and likely to shell out for another subscription package.

But this, too, carries risk. Discoverability of the MLS is going to be more difficult, as considerably fewer games will be televised. Yes, Apple TV+ subs will get some games included, but unless Apple is counting on everyone who watches “Ted Lasso” to be converted into subscribers, growth will be hard to come by.

The MLS runs a real risk of audience stagnation. The U.S. is the major co-host of the 2026 World Cup, which would be expected to propel interest in a domestic league. Even if younger fans are more tech savvy and streaming adept, they may not wish to pay for an extra service to watch a league where quality has arguably gone backward in recent years.

The decision to launch a new streaming service to watch all games also suggests that the MLS, at the very least, believes its product is inelastic in demand. With cost-of-living expenses continually rising and a real threat of recession, many people will not have the means to plunk down what VIP+ estimates will be an additional $20-$30 a month.

The Apple-MLS deal does have some positives. Offering the service for free to season-ticket holders is a nice touch. Enabling games to be played in two windows on Saturdays and Wednesdays, versus the current hodgepodge to fit in with TV rights holders schedules, is another. It does offer the possibility of derailing the RSN gravy train, as well as shrinking the total MLS audience. Only the latter directly impacts the MLS, but it may well lead to rights being worth less when they are up in 2033.