From Apple to All-Stars: why it’s time to get serious about MLS
A Premier League devotee heads to the US and gets the MLS bug…
For any fan of the Premier League, seeing Wayne Rooney and Mikel Arteta on the pitch is nothing new. Both players gained legions of fans when they played for Man Utd and Arsenal respectively in their heyday but things are different this time around.
They are standing watching a spectacle, as is ShortList. On the Audi Field, in Washington DC, home to DC United, they wait patiently as huge light-and-smoke machines are rolled on to the pitch, quickly turning the stadium into a disco.
Fireworks paint the sky red and white, while a flyover and the American national anthem bring the enthusiastic party to a crescendo, just in time for the whistle to blow for kick-off.
This is football MLS-style and there is every reason to party: Major League Soccer is going through one hell of a glow-up right now.
The league is entering its 20th year (the 1994 World Cup preparations in the US kickstarted the MLS) and now has the ultimate MVP backing it: Apple.
Apple has a 10-year deal on the rights to the MLS, thanks to a rather surreptitious turn of events, where the owners of the MLS found themselves owning the entire rights for every single team and every single game, both locally and globally.
Given the knotty rights for other leagues (Premier League included, which sees its broadcasts split between Sky Sports, Amazon and TNT and that’s just in the UK), this was an opportunity for a broadcaster to come in and ‘own’ the entirety of MLS’ coverage globally.
In a few short months from acquiring the rights, Apple created the MLS Season Pass, a subscription service, available through the Apple TV app, and available in more than 100 countries and regions.
The MLS Season Pass features every live MLS regular-season match, the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, and Leagues Cup1 all in one place. Plus, the game that ShortList went to watch, the one that marks the midway point of the season - the MLS All-Star Game.
A lot of the content is also free to view, too, including a near five-hour live whip-around show, MLS 360, which captures all of the key moments and goals from every match.
It’s the perfect gateway for those new to the game. One of the analysts on the show, Bradley Wright-Philips, spoke to Shortlist about just what it takes to make the show work.
“It’s tough, I won’t lie to you, five hours is a long time,” says Wright-Philips.
“What helps is that throughout the show you could have Taylor [Twellman, MLS commentator] jumping in, or Nigel Reo-Coker [former MLS player] could be there and that helps a lot.
“Preparation-wise I keep notes on players and teams. I rely a lot on my personality, then a few notes here and there as there may be some teams in the West Coast you might not get to see, so you are looking for who are their dangerous players and what they need to do to win that week. The rest I just go for it.”
The MLS 360 show is the pinnacle of what Apple is trying to do - offer blanket coverage to make sure all teams are treated the same.
It’s a monumental undertaking, one that was hammered home when we visited an OB truck on match day, one of a handful that were there to handle the hundreds of live feeds and turn them into 1080p live streams, with just a few seconds delay from what’s going on in real-time on the pitch to what you see on the screen.
When it came to broadcasting the matches, Apple worked with the MLS to make sure that there are consistent match times (something that wasn’t a thing before this deal) and no blackouts - which is a first in live sports broadcasting.
The person who has been at the forefront of all of this is Eddy Cue, Senior Vice President of Services at Apple. Speaking exclusively to ShortList he noted the passion that Apple has for the MLS and how they are treating the deal they have like they do all of their products.
“We design our products by thinking, ‘how do we make the best product?’ And ultimately, it's always worked for us. So that's kind of the way we approach this,” says Cue.
“Sports is the most awesome unscripted drama. You just don't know what's going to happen. And so I think it has tremendous value as we go forward.
“This thing can be huge and it should be huge. And we've got to execute, they've got to execute, and a lot of things have to happen, but it's not unrealistic. It is a huge opportunity.”
The person managing it from an MLS perspective is Don Garber, commissioner of the MLS, a job he has held since 1999.
“We couldn't be more excited about partnering with the largest, most innovative company in the world,” says Garber.
“It's year one of a 10-year deal but really we've hit it by storm. The games are produced to a very high quality.
“Every team has got their own room on MLS Season Pass, in which they can feed an endless amount of content. So think about the idea that every club has their own programme to do whatever it is that they think will entertain, inspire and provide value to their fans.”
Former MLS MVP and US National Team player Taylor Twellman is one of the commentators for Apple's coverage. He knows the league well from an analyst point of view, having previously worked with ESPN, and is clearly impressed with what Apple has done with the coverage so far.
“In 2022 there were 65 different start times in the MLS. What Apple did was come with a blank piece of paper and said, ‘what can we do?’ Everything they have done has been about the fan experience - and for the MLS fan that had been second rate. All of a sudden the fan is being treated with the right respect,” says Twellman to ShortList.
“This is a 10-year partnership and we’ve already seen a huge amount. The MLS Season Pass happened within the first year, so just think what the 10th year will be like.
“We all know in the media world that three years is a long time, five years is a long time, 10 is insane.”
The boost for MLS couldn’t have come at a better time for US soccer. The country is now building up to the World Cup which it is hosting - alongside Mexico and Canada - in 2026. While it hosted in ‘94, Twellman believes that things are very different this time around.
“The infrastructure is pretty much there now. For the ‘94 World Cup there was nothing. Now every country that comes to the United States, Mexico and Canada, they're gonna see the infrastructure there. That's all of a sudden going to amplify the impact on the culture of the game.”
While the World Cup will shine a spotlight on US soccer on a national level, it’s already well within the glare of the world’s media thanks to the signing of Lionel Messi for Inter Miami CF, a club co-owned by David Beckham who himself turned the world on to MLS when he signed for LA Galaxy back in 2007.
It’s hard to miss Apple’s pink GOAT billboards that are celebrating the news of the best-ever football player choosing their league as his new home. At his unveiling event, Messi couldn’t keep the grin off his face - the spectacle matching the importance of the signing.
His presence certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by another legend of the game who made the MLS his home some years before.
Wayne Rooney played for DC United, before having a stint as manager of Derby County. He’s back in DC managing the team he once played for and also had the honour of managing the MLS All-Stars for the All-Star Game against Arsenal this year.
“The MLS is developing at a rapid pace. Getting Lionel Messi into the MLS is huge,” said Rooney in the game’s press conference.
“He’s a player I have always loved playing against and watching. It’s going to be great for fans in the states to get to watch him up close.
“Obviously the Apple deal for the league is huge and getting Messi could be a real game changer. We saw it with Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia, the impact he has had with a lot more players going out there to play.
“I think it was important for the league to get Messi in to show that the MLS can compete against other countries for players.”
Mikel Arteta’s allegiance is with the Premier League but he also noted the importance of Messi joining the MLS in the press conference.
“The way the league has developed over the last 20 years is phenomenal. It is very different now to what it was, thanks to it gaining top talent and now the best-ever football player. It’s a very clever move by the MLS and it really puts a spotlight on the league.”
This was felt by ShortList as we spent a few days in DC watching the build-up to the All-Star game, which happens at the mid-point in a season that runs from February to October, and has been designed to get notable teams from around the world to play a pick of the best players in the MLS right now.
Past matches include the likes of Man Utd and AC Milan and a Skills Challenge was introduced in 2018, which is more akin to what you see in the NBA than on the soccer pitch.
There was a real buzz about the events this time, with the MLS All-Stars training within view of Capitol Hill, on The Mall, and even heading to The White House to show off their tricks on the White House Lawn, in front of First Lady Jill Biden.
The idea of an All-Star game is embraced in the US by players and fans but it’s something that Rooney acknowledged wouldn’t work in the UK.
“The culture is different. It’s a huge game here but in England the rivalry between teams will mean that people would complain about players playing too much. It’s great to be part of it here but in England it just wouldn’t work.”
And work it does in the US. The MLS All-Star game against Arsenal was played to a sellout crowd of 20,621. While many in the audience didn’t get the win they wanted, with Arsenal managing to put five goals past the All-Star Team, spirits were not dampened and the applause for key ‘home’ players such as Christian Benteke, who plays for DC United, was rapturous.
Having the game played in the same week that Messi made his debut for Inter Miami CF, where in true fairytale fashion (or should we say Tad Lasso fashion?) he scored the winner from a free kick, has given the MLS the boost it needs and deserves right now.
It’s certainly convinced this budding Trent Crimm.
Get the MLS Season Pass now on the Apple TV app for £14.99 per month during the season or £99 per season, and Apple TV+ subscribers can sign up at £12.99 per month or £79 per season.