New York (AFP) -
Major League Soccer is hoping its ground-breaking new global streaming deal with Apple TV will launch a new era of growth when their season gets under way on Saturday.
Under a new 10-year deal, worth a reported $2.5 billion, MLS becomes the first league to offer all their games available to stream, via Apple TV, domestically and internationally.
Previously MLS clubs broadcast their games via regional and local television networks with select games shown nationally on various cable sports channels.
The league often seemed low on the list of priorities of those channels, well below NFL, NBA and college football, but is hoping that by becoming a major investment for Apple, their profile will be transformed.
'We're going to be putting (games) on a device for any fan anywhere in the world, anytime, anywhere without any blackouts. It's unprecedented,' MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters on Wednesday at the league's new purpose built studios in Harlem.
'No other league really can offer that type of opportunity for consumer and fan engagement. So I couldn't be more excited,' he said.
MLS games were shown outside of North America on a variety of channels but now all will be available on Apple TV, phones, tablets and browsers with no geographic restrictions on the content.
The league which began in 1996 with 10 teams and mostly American players, now has 29 clubs in the United States and Canada with players drawn from over 80 nations and Garber hopes the Apple deal will also draw in fans from some of those markets.
'I can't tell you what it's like to have our clubs talk to a player from Argentina or from Brazil or from, you know, Croatia or from England and know that you'll be able to deliver a game directly to one of their fans with the click of a button.' he said.
'That is perhaps the most exciting part of this new partnership. We are playing in the global game and we're not the global league that we want to be. And what better way to do that with a global digital partner that is ubiquitous around the world?'
- Simplified Schedule -
For local fans of MLS, who are given free passes to the streams as part of their season tickets, the new deal brings a simplified schedule with the vast majority of games being held on a Saturday - rather than spread out over various days.
The Premier League has built a following in the United States with it's regular Saturday morning slot on television and Garber wants MLS also to become 'destination viewing'.
'I think for us, having a consistent schedule is going to help our teams be able to create habits with their with their fans and allow us to produce games in ways that are gonna be higher quality and frankly, more efficient,' he said.
While other competitions around the world will be closely watching how succesful MLS is with their new deal, the league hasn't completely abandoned traditional television, with 34 games to be shown in the United States on Fox.
Garber said the league has no goal for subscriptions in the first season but MLS is also targeting the significant Mexican-American audience by linking up with Mexico's Liga MX for a new month-long, World Cup style tournament every August featuring the top flight teams from both countries.
Domestic league action will stop play for the entirety of the Leagues Cup, which will also be streamed on Apple TV.
'We've got one of the most popular professional soccer leagues in the world right across our border. So why not sit down and create a competition that will matter? It's going to be pretty cool,' said Garber.
There is plenty more change this season with the newly formed St Louis City joining as the 29th club and the playoff system tweaked to have 'best of three' first round series.
The opening weekend features a local derby in California where Los Angeles Galaxy will face defending champions Los Angeles FC in a game which has been moved to the 89,000 capacity Rose Bowl in a bid to break the league-wide attendance record of 73,019 set by Charlotte last season.
Surprisingly there have been no big-name arrivals in the league this off-season but it is clear that Apple is banking on a higher profile for the sport in the coming years.
The United States and Canada will host the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Garber believes that will be a game-changer.
'The pathway to 2026 is something that's going to be the rocket fuel for the entire soccer ecosystem in the US,' he said.