For those of us who work in American football media, Friday’s news that Vox Media will no longer support its mostly MLS-based SB Nation site was a brutal blow.
For fans of other American professional and collegiate sports, SB Nation’s fan-facing site fills a void in the more traditional news and supplemental coverage of sports media, focusing on the most diehard fans. But in the MLS, many local organizations simply don’t take it seriously, and The Bent Musket, Massive Report, Once A Metro, and many others like it have become vital lifelines for all the knowledgeable fans looking for independently reported news on their sites. Even in a market where MLS is covered extensively by mainstream news outlets, the SB Nation website offers a nuanced look at a game less familiar to TV and newspaper sports departments.
While the SB Nation website relies almost entirely on part-time staff who work primarily out of love, it has also produced full-time football journalists who have moved on to other, more national platforms.
Despite their uniquely important place in the US football media landscape, these MLS sites are still the first targets — along with their NHL colleagues — among Vox laying off about 7 percent of its staff. In other words, their enormous importance to MLS fans in terms of gross revenue potential remains unmeasured relative to their narrower-coverage counterparts in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and other sports. Word.
It should be a sobering reminder for the league and its new global streaming partner, Apple TV, that there is still a lot of work to be done before the league grows to a point where fans consume content similar to other major North American sports. .
It’s one thing to boast about steady attendance or slightly improved TV ratings. These are all good indicators of how receptive the product is to fans who are exposed to MLS. But being receptive is different from being an active consumer. If the MLS-Apple partnership is to work, the SB Nation episode proved that more fans must become active consumers.
That’s because, in sports terms, a 10-year global streaming deal worth $2.5 billion is exactly the kind of endeavor that would require such active consumers rather than the average fan.
With the national TV game schedule drastically reduced to about 34 games per year and local broadcasts pulled from regional sports networks, the only way most fans can watch MLS on TV is through Apple’s MLS Season Pass subscription service. At $14.99 per month or $99.99 per season, that price point will likely only appeal to fans who place the league above other football or other American sports. (Fans who buy season tickets will get the MLS Season Pass for free.)
Yes, Apple is locked in royalties for 10 years, so some of the MLS risk is mitigated. But MLS also wants to participate in revenue sharing, as stipulated in the deal, if Apple subscribers exceed an undisclosed threshold. It also picks up all broadcast production costs and responsibilities, meaning those royalties will generate less real revenue than traditional TV deals.
These circumstances suggest that the league is banking on Apple’s huge brand power to cultivate more fans, who are active consumers. MLS is also negotiating shorter deals for its direct TV rights in the U.S. and Canada, with Apple’s contract set to expire after the 2026 FIFA World Cup in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with six years remaining on the contract.
The fact that those SB Nation MLS sites were jettisoned so quickly might have thrown some cold water on the possibility of this being possible, or at least clarified a modest starting point. Additionally, while the contract guaranteed royalties for 10 years, it didn’t necessarily ensure that Apple would do its best to promote MLS throughout the agreement. The deal is sure to start with great enthusiasm. But for a company with a market cap of over $3 trillion, if MLS Season Pass doesn’t grow significantly in revenue after a few years, that $2.5 billion could end up being judged to be a sunk cost.
What would that look like? Look at the last few years of ESPN’s recent deal with the league, when it barely advertised games and seemed to schedule them mostly to fill time between other, more coveted shows.