There’s light at the end of the tunnel that is the 2023 MLS season. And that tunnel looks different than in previous years, for so many reasons. Chief among them is that domestic streaming rights shifted from ESPN+ to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. That’s a big deal, not because ESPN+ was doing a particularly bad job, but because it made it simple to watch every match.
But the metaphorical reality distortion field that surrounds Apple also happens to, at times, be true. It’s evident in the products, and it’s also apparent in the services.
We had a lot of questions going into the season. For one, other than a handful of Major League Baseball games, Apple just didn’t really have much experience streaming live sports. Soccer (football!) is the biggest sport in the world, and MLS has continued to grow, even if it’s not anywhere near on par with top leagues in other countries.
So let’s take stock of where things are as we go into the final matches of the regular season. Starting with the obvious.
It’s pointless to bury this as some sort of spoiler at the end of the list, so let’s just get it out there. The 2023 Major League Soccer season already comprises two halves. We can now give them names: Before Messi, and After Messi.
Lionel Messi actually has played in just a scant few regular-season MLS matches for Inter Miami, though he debuted with the club on July 21 in the Leagues Cup tournament and managed 10 goals in seven matches en route to the team’s first trophy. He came in as a sub in the 60th minute in his first regular-season match … and scored less than 20 minutes later in a 2-0 win.
And as expected, Messi’s arrival at MLS has been a boon to MLS Season Pass, with the Apple-owned subscription service more than doubling its numbers since Messi joined Inter Miami. (Apple still doesn’t give actual subscription numbers, though.)
So, yeah. That’s a big deal for MLS. It’s a big deal for Inter Miami. (Hearing the crowd at Red Bull Arena chant “We want Messi” in that first regular-season game was quite the experience.) It’s also a big deal for Apple, even if all the Messi love makes you mutter “isn’t it a bit much?” It is. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Good luck getting a ticket, though.
Apple and MLS execs have told us from the start that we shouldn’t worry about that extra resolution, and that we’d be plenty impressed with what’s served up. Taking into account that consistency among television brands and panels is a minor nightmare, the bottom line is that, yes, the quality of the MLS Season Pass has been excellent. While there have been minor hiccups on occasion, matches have looked far better than what you’ll see most days on other platforms. The frame rate is spot-on (anything less than 60 fps is unacceptable). The bit rate is great, with no obvious sign of artifacting or compression.
That’s not to say that we’d turn down a 4K stream if it were offered. But at this point, we probably wouldn’t pay extra for it — the 1080p stream is that good.
3. U.S. commentary still isn’t great
We have to get this off our collective chests before we go any further. And to be completely fair, it’s not just an MLS Season Pass thing. It was apparent in the recent Women’s World Cup matches. Or the men’s tournament in 2022. But something has to be done about the in-game commentary.
Soccer (football!!!) is the most popular sport in the world. It still has some catching up to do in the U.S., but commentators are trying way too hard. There are too many made-up soccer-sounding terms being thrown at an audience that might well have no idea what they’re talking about, to the extent of there being some seriously spoiled word salad. “Two goals” is more descriptive than “a brace.” And someone doesn’t “go to ground” every time they hit the turf. (And you don’t have to say “pitch” every single time, either.) We just don’t have the accents or the history to pull that off. Simple words are fine.
And then there’s the sheer volume of words being spoken. It’s as if someone told the commentators to host a live analytical podcast as the game is underway, without any sort of breathing room to just let play happen. It’s too much. And it’s silly. And it makes what otherwise is an excellent production into a jumbled mess.
Not every match commentary is guilty of this. (And there’s perhaps a link between the simplicity of Apple and the simplicity of commentary. Or we could just be making that up in our heads.) When it’s good, and the commentators allow the game to breathe, it’s good. But when it’s bad, it’s bad.
If there’s one feature that multiple streaming platforms have embraced in 2023, it’s multiview. While it’s not a new feature (the defunct PlayStation Vue had it years ago), it’s proved to be an important one for sports fans who want the ability to watch multiple games at the same time. YouTube TV has it, just in time for NFL Sunday Ticket. Fubo has it, too.
And Apple has its own multiview implementation, not only for MLS Season Pass, but also for Friday Night Baseball.
OK, maybe multiview isn’t 100% a must (which is good, since it’s only on Apple TV 4K hardware right now). But given that so many games are played at the same time, it’s a big deal for die-hard fans. Basically, it should be table stakes at this point.
You can’t blame Apple for wanting to promote its products. It’s invested a lot of money in getting MLS Season Pass (and nearly all MLS games as exclusives), as well as a ton of money in Messi himself.
But Apple also has gotten a little spammy in promoting sports on Apple TV. It’s one thing to send a push notification for a close game in, say, football or basketball, or even baseball, where scoring is more common and the game could go either way at any time.
But a “close game” in soccer is more the norm than not, and the notifications should reflect that. A 1-0 score, or even 2-0, isn’t uncommon. In fact, only two of the current 29 teams average 2 goals a game or more — St. Louis City and Columbus. Being tied at the half, or even toward the end of the game, isn’t abnormal.
In other words, most matches are “close.” Apple should know that.
The great thing about MLS Season Pass is that every game is available to you. The bad thing is that even with multiview, it’s just really hard to take it all in at once (not that we necessarily recommend mainlining games like that).
But MLS Season Pass has done a really good job of making games available outside of their live windows. Recaps — highlights of the top plays in the games — let you see the important parts in just a few minutes. Full replays are easy enough to get to. And the live MLS 360 show bookends things quite nicely.
And that’s all before you get to the individual team coverage. Apple makes it easy to follow your favorite team, which makes all that ancillary content that much easier to find.
MLS Season Pass on Apple TV has shown how live sports should be done. It has all the games for a single price, without any blackouts. And the service is available on just about any modern connected device. That makes watching easy — and it’s even easier if you’re on an Apple product.
The quality of the streams themselves are, all things being equal, very good. There have been the occasional hiccups, and that’s really not surprising given all the variables involved: Different stadiums with individual productions for each, plus the matter of moving all that data around to Apple, which then has to get it to the end users.
And while we haven’t touched on the studio shows — including the pre- and post-game commentary — that side of the equation also has been pretty good, though it probably could stand to employ a little more star power. (That’s not to take away from on-camera folks, who have been really good. It’s just that you’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of most of them.)
It’ll be interesting to see how MLS Season Pass improves the rest of the season, and what gets tweaked going into the next season. It also will be interesting to see how it compares to NFL Sunday Ticket, which this year moves from the relatively siloed DirecTV to the nearly ubiquitous YouTube and YouTube TV.
And it’ll also be interesting — entertaining, really — to see what Messi does next.