RSL games have a new TV broadcaster this season — and it might be significant for other sports, too

Will Major League Soccer’s deal with Apple create a model for other leagues? The Tribune’s Andy Larsen gets a sneak peek.

(Apple) Major League Soccer players and Apple CEO Tim Cook pose for a photo to announce the league's new broadcast deal with Apple.

Real Salt Lake fans can still hear the familiar voice of color analyst Brian Dunseth on TV this season. He just might not be breaking down set pieces or calling out snap-down headers during every RSL game.

Major League Soccer has added Dunseth to its roster of on-air talent as the league consolidates all of its team’s broadcasts onto a single platform: Apple TV. For RSL fans, that means the end of the familiar pairing of Dunseth and play-by-play man David James, along with the end of everyone watching RSL games for free.

But for sports-watchers in general — not just soccer fans, but Jazz fans, Utes fans, you name it — it might portend some bigger news. In fact, the Apple deal might give some hints about the future of watching sports on TV.

Let’s dig in.

The new MLS deal

Here’s the background: In 2019, MLS told its clubs not to sign local TV deals past the 2022 season, so that they could bundle all of their local and national, broadcast and streaming rights into one big package. That meant that RSL’s local TV broadcast deal with KMYU (the sister station of KUTV) and streaming deal with KSL had to be wrapped up by then, too.

Those deals were pretty good for RSL fans. KMYU was broadcast on most cable and satellite packages, as well as over the air for free. On the streaming side, RSL fans could watch their games for free on KSL.com. But it did have some limitations, too. When games were broadcast on national TV, they couldn’t be aired locally. The production values also sometimes left something to be desired. For example, while most MLS local broadcasts used seven to eight cameras per game, Apple plans to use 12 for every game, according to The Athletic.

And, of course, this is the critical part: for RSL and the league, the money made fell somewhere between slim to none.

In signing a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple, America’s fifth-biggest professional sports league became the first to push all of their local and national content on a streaming platform. Now, all MLS games are in one place, completely blackout-free. Apple also has rights to the Leagues Cup, MLS Next, MLS Next Pro games, as well as the league’s All-Star Game.

In addition, 34 selected MLS games will air on Fox or Fox Sports 1.

MLS will produce all broadcasts themselves, hiring “at least” 12 English-language teams and 12 Spanish-language teams of play-by-play voices and color commentators to announce every game in both languages. (French-language teams will also commentate the Canadian teams’ games.) There will be studio coverage of each game: pre-game, halftime, and post-game, along with a Saturday night whiparound show showing highlights from all matches. (Think NFL Redzone.) Fans will be able to jump in at any point and start from the beginning or start from live action.

All commentators, however, won’t necessarily be the local ones. Instead, the league will instead create just one English-language broadcast pairing for every game among the two teams. The league is initially expected to mix and match its play-by-play announcers and color commentators pretty freely. 49 broadcasters in various roles have been announced by the league, and a third round of hires is expected between now and the league’s season opener.

I got a peek at the new product this week. Beyond game coverage, Apple is also producing other MLS and RSL-specific content. At launch, the RSL page on the Apple TV app will have interviews with Justen Glad and Nick Rimando, past notable highlight goals, along with archived classic RSL games back to 2019. Every game this season will be available for viewing or re-viewing immediately after the game is over, too.

(Apple) MLS's new broadcast deal with Apple means MLS and RSL games will be available on Apple TV+'s app.

Thanks to the deal, all MLS games this season, save for limited exceptions, will start at 7:30 local time on Saturdays and select Wednesdays. For RSL home games at America First Field, that means 7:30 p.m. MT kickoffs. The season begins on Feb. 25 for all teams; RSL’s first game is in Vancouver at 8:30 p.m. MT. At all games, coaches will be given iPads to use, like Microsoft’s Surface tablets are used by NFL coaches. MLS jerseys this year will also have an Apple logo on the sleeve.

Basically, they’re trying to make every local MLS broadcast feel like a national TV game — with the strengths and weaknesses of that approach.

Profits for clubs, costs for fans

In particular, one strength is that the clubs will make more money. In all, one estimate said that each club should make around $7.5 million per year from the TV deal. Add that to the $6 million per year that the team is getting from the America First Field sponsorship, and it’s enough to cover the entirety of RSL’s 2022 player payroll just between those revenue sources alone. Those player salaries stood at $10.5 million, according to MLS player association data.

If you add in all of the other revenue sources for RSL — ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, and so on — it’s clear that the club should be making a significant amount of money. And fans should therefore expect the front office to act on its new budget, including more expenditures like the team-record $3.1 million spent on winger Carlos Andrés Gómez this offseason.

Of course, every MLS team will get the same boost, so expect all teams to become more active in the international transfer market. RSL will have to improve more than the competition if they want to go beyond the playoff fringes they’ve been at for much of the last decade and instead compete for MLS trophies.

All of this comes at a cost for fans, though. In order to watch all MLS games this season, including RSL, fans will have to pay $99 per year to Apple for the MLS Season Pass, or $14.99 per month. Signups open Wednesday.

There are some discounts and ways for fans to mitigate the full cost, though. Those who already have an Apple TV+ package will get a discount: $79 for the season, or $12.99/mo. Through Apple’s Family Sharing system, six different people can share the burden of one MLS Season Pass account.

Furthermore, six MLS games per week will be shown for free on Apple TV’s app outside of the MLS Season Pass paywall, about 40% of the league’s schedule.

RSL season ticket holders who have linked their account with new ticket servicer SeatGeek and paid at least $100 towards their season tickets will get also get free access to MLS Season Pass. Emails will be sent out to those people on Wednesday, according to the club.

Is this the future?

All in all, it’s a model that is turning heads. NBA, MLB, and NHL executives are all watching to see how MLS’ deal with Apple TV goes, especially given the news of the impending bankruptcy of Bally Sports — the regional sports networks that own local broadcasting rights for 16 NBA, 14 MLB and 12 NHL teams.

That bankruptcy is putting the regional sports fees owed to the clubs in some doubt. In particular, rights deals between Bally Sports and the teams can be terminated, or payments paused, during the bankruptcy. That looks exceedingly plausible: Bally has to make $2 billion of rights payments this year, but only has $585 million on hand in cash. My math degree tells me... that’s not going to cut it.

“You’re looking at a potential rewrite of the entire regional sports business on the other side of this restructuring,” Davis Hebert, a senior telecom analyst at debt research firm CreditSights, told Bloomberg.

MLB is reportedly looking into taking its local broadcast rights back, per Bloomberg. The NBA and NHL’s plans have been less well-reported, but you have to wonder if they’re considering the same. And under that scenario, it would make some sense for those leagues to roll their local rights into a national rights negotiation, just like MLS did.

Essentially, imagine a better version of the NBA League Pass product with no local blackouts for fans — for many, it’s a dream come true.

The Jazz, meanwhile, are currently trying to figure out their local broadcasting plans for the 2023-24 season and beyond. Their current deal with AT&T SportsNet pays them about $25 million per season, but Bally’s bankruptcy and cord cutting in general puts that amount in some jeopardy if the Jazz want to open up their broadcasts to more fans.

If Apple is able to turn a profit despite their $2.5 billion investment, interest will rise in creating a similar product for the more popular American sports. They’re making a two-sided bet: on both the future of people paying for sports streaming and on soccer in the United States.

Is Apple’s model the new future of watching sports in America? We shall see.