For those of us who work in the American Soccer media, the news Friday that Vox Media would no longer be supporting most of its MLS-based SB Nation websites was a brutal blow.
For fans of other American pro and college sports, SB Nation’s fan-oriented sites have filled the niche of supplementing coverage by more traditional news and sports outlets, with a focus on the most-diehard fans. But in MLS, which many of those local organizations simply don’t treat as seriously, The Bent Musket, Massive Report, Once A Metro and so many other similar sites have been a crucial lifeline for all knowledgeable fans looking for independently reported news on their teams. Even in markets were mainstream news outlets cover MLS thoroughly, SB Nation sites offer nuanced understanding of a game less familiar to TV and newspaper sports departments.
And even though SB Nation sites rely almost exclusively on part-time employees who labor primarily out of love, it has also developed full-time soccer journalists who have moved on to other more national platforms.
Despite that uniquely important place in the American soccer media landscape, those MLS sites were still the first targeted — along with their NHL colleagues — amid Vox’s layoffs of roughly 7% of its workforce. In other words, their outsized importance to MLS fans still didn’t measure up in terms of total revenue potential relative to counterparts covering a narrower patch of turf in NFL, NBA, MLB and other sports.
That should serve as a sobering reminder to the league and Apple TV, its new worldwide streaming partner, that enormous work remains to grow the league to the point that it profiles similarly against other major North American sports in how fans consume content.
It’s one thing to boast steady attendance figures or slightly increased TV ratings. And those are good indicators that fans who are exposed to MLS are receptive to the product. But being receptive is different than being an active consumer. And if the MLS-Apple partnership is going to work, the SB Nation episode proves that far more fans have to become active consumers.
That’s because the 10-year worldwide streaming agreement worth a total of $2.5 billion is exactly the kind of endeavor that requires such active consumers rather than casual fans, in sports parlance.
With the schedule of national TV games drastically reduced to about 34 games a year and local broadcasts taken off regional sports networks, the only way most fans are going to see MLS on TV is through Apple’s MLS Season Pass subscription service. At a $14.99 monthly or $99.99 a season, it’s a price point likely only to appeal to fans who prioritize the league over other soccer or other American sports. (Fans who purchase season tickets will have free access to MLS Season Pass.)
Yes, Apple is locked into 10 years of rights fees, so some of the MLS risk is blunted. But MLS also hopes to partake in revenue sharing as outlined in the deal if the number of Apple subscribers passes an undisclosed threshold. It has also taken on production costs and responsibilities for all broadcasts, which means the true income generated by those rights fees will be less than under traditional TV deals.
Those circumstances suggest the league is banking on Apple’s enormous branding power to create more fans who are active consumers. So does MLS negotiating shorter deals for its lineal TV rights in the U.S. and Canada, which will expire with six years left on Apple’s contract in the aftermath of the 2026 FIFA World Cup held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The fact those SB Nation MLS sites were so quickly jettisoned may pour some cold water over how achievable that might be, or at least make clear the modest starting point. And additionally, while the contract guarantees 10 years of rights fees, it does not necessarily ensure Apple’s best efforts at promoting MLS throughout the agreement. The deal is certainly likely to start with a lot of enthusiasm. But for a company valued at more than $3 trillion, $2.5 billion is the kind of money that could eventually be judged as a sunk cost if MLS Season Pass isn’t experiencing significant growth in revenues several years from now.
What could that look like? Look to the last couple years of ESPN’s most-recent agreement with the league, when it barely promoted games and appeared to schedule them primarily to fill time between other more coveted programming.