I’ve watched a lot of soccer in my lifetime. I’ve played all over the Southeastern United States when I was younger. My kids now play on travel teams. I’m the president of our local youth rec league with 900 kids a season. So there’s a pretty good chance that if a TV is turned on in our house, there’s a game playing.
And this much was clear in the first few minutes of the opening weekend of the 2023 MLS season — and the inaugural run for MLS Season Pass: Apple absolutely nailed its implementation of a streaming sports package.
Good thing, too, since 2023 is the first of a 10-year run for Apple TV as the exclusive home of MLS Season Pass, which gets fans every game, plus the playoff and MLS Cup. And the MLS Next and MLS Next Pro developmental leagues. And features on players and teams. And live highlights and analysis. And replays.
All that for a reasonable price, with no blackouts. That’s simple, and Apple has showed other leagues and its competitors how things should be done.
Great from the opening match
The biggest question going into the opening weekend of games was a simple one — how were the games going to look on TV? For as good as we know video can be, there’s also a plethora of bad streaming video out there. I’ve long had major gripes about how Fox (or our local Fox affiliate, anyway) presents NFL games in standard definition. And there’s no denying that producing a live sporting event is difficult on a good day, to say nothing of the massive amounts of data that must be processed if you start talking about things like 4K resolution.
The quality of Apple’s 1080p stream is as good as any sport and better than most.
So while it wasn’t really surprising to learn that Apple TV was “only” going to stream MLS Season Pass in 1080p, it was still a little disappointing. In a media call with Apple and MLS officials, though, we basically were told not to worry about it and that we’d be plenty happy with the quality of the 1080p stream. (What else would they say, right?)
But the execs weren’t kidding. As I type this the following day, I’m watching Tottenham play Chelsea in 4K on NBC on YouTube TV. (That little excess costs me an extra $20 a month on my YouTube TV bill, by the way.) But every MLS match I saw on February 25 looked comparable, if not better. There are a million variables there, of course, from the weather and time of day, to video production lord knows what else.
But as we’ve said before, a great 1080p stream will trump a highly compressed upscaled 4K stream any day of the week. And in this case, that day was the opening day of the 2023 MLS season. Same goes for the 5.1 surround sound, too.
And there wasn’t any weird frame rate lag that I’ve experienced in other broadcasts, where every minute or so you’d see things stutter a little before catching back up to the full 60 frames per second. (I’ve never been able to track down the cause, but I’ve seen it on multiple channels on multiple apps.) MLS on Apple TV was smooth through and through.
The opening match between Nashville and NYCFC was an interesting one to watch, too, from a technical standpoint, because it also was available on Fox. (Some matches will still be on Fox or FS1 in addition to Apple TV.) A flipping back and forth between YouTube TV and Apple TV showed the two streams in stark contrast. Apple TV indeed was streaming in 1080p. Fox on YouTube TV was serving me the match in 720p, and it was obviously worse.
Again, there are a lot of variables here. For what it’s worth, I checked things out on the latest Apple TV 4K box on a several-years-old LG CX OLED TV and on an even-older TCL 6-Series Roku TV (to test the Apple TV app on that platform), on a gigabit fiber connection. I saw no real difference in picture quality, which is good.
The ancillary stuff
Nothing is perfect, of course, and everything is subjective. It’s extremely easy to have bad play-by-play commentary on soccer — almost as if the announcers are coached to try to make things more exciting. So there was plenty of the soccer lingo that nobody outside of the broadcast booth actually uses. (“Go to ground” and “brace” — having scored two goals — are two of the worst.) But that’s very much the subjective part. Not everyone can be a seasoned British announcer, whose understated expressions of the game essentially are part of the national DNA and have been passed down from the beginnings of Association Football.
Same, too, goes for the in-studio highlight shows. They’re fine for what they are. And you have to expect that the fanfare of MLS Season Pass being on Apple TV will die down a little after the first week — especially when you remember that every game in the opening weekend was available to anyone to watch for free, without a subscription.
Fortunately, soccer isn’t a sport that’s made for TV. It’s not 3 hours of commercials with 25 minutes of football getting in the way. So you get 45 minutes or so of actual play before being subjected to an advertisement. And while Audi has been a major sponsor of MLS for a while now, it was a little jarring to see it as the only (at least it seemed that way?) commercial sponsor. That’s a minor complaint, though.
One last one: It felt like it took a few too many clicks to actually get to the game. Open the app. Go to MLS Season Pass. Select a game. Then whether I wanted to watch live, or start from the beginning. It could be that the last two options just looked so similar. But given that streaming platforms don’t make hopping from show to show or game to game as easy as flipping channels on cable TV, it was a little annoying.
What does this mean for the competition?
MLS Season Pass on Apple TV is a big deal. It’s big because ESPN+ lost it. It’s big because live sports is destination television — it’s something that will bring in new subscribers.
It’s also the first of two major changes in the sports media world in 2023. YouTube and YouTube TV this fall will debut their version of NFL Sunday Ticket, which lets fans watch out-of-market games wherever they live.
Apple has set the bar high for YouTube and NFL Sunday Ticket.
But soccer is not football, and MLS isn’t the NFL. The number of eyeballs is drastically different. Same, too, for the money. (Never mind that soccer is the most popular sport in the world.) MLS Season Pass costs $15 a month or $100 a season if you don’t also subscribe to Apple TV+ (the company’s premium streaming service). It’s a couple bucks less if you do. And that’s for the entire season, which runs from late February until early December. (And T-Mobile customers get MLS Season Pass for free.)
NFL Sunday Ticket is expected to still cost several hundred dollars for the season and runs just 18 weeks. (Actual prices have yet to be announced, but they should be coming this spring.) On a per-game (or week) basis, that’s many times more expensive. And NFL RedZone — the live-as-someone-maybe-is-about-to-score channel — will cost extra.
And we don’t know anything about the technical aspects of NFL Sunday Ticket as streamed by YouTube and YouTube TV. Will it be good? Will it be consistent? We know YouTubeTV can do 4K just fine. But will it here? (Or can it?)
In other words, will it be worth it? MLS Season Pass on Apple TV has very quickly shown that a tech company — and the video production partners whose names you almost never hear — is very much up to the task.