Inside Apple’s Plan to Change the Way We Watch Sports

(There was also the bare fact that MLS didn’t exactly seem like an Apple product. “I can’t say I was a rabid MLS fan,” Cue said. “I had seen some games. I knew my kids liked it more than I did. My first reaction would’ve been, it’s not big enough for us. That was the mindset I had.”)

And he was wary of dealing with the sort of red tape that accompanies any incursion into a new industry. Back when he was launching the iTunes Store, he told me, he spent ages arguing with the record labels about the number of times users would be allowed to burn a song they had purchased to a CD. The labels wanted the number to be zero; Cue thought it should be effectively limitless. The negotiation landed on a number closer to zero than infinity, and though Cue would eventually collect enough data to prove his point, he was displeased with the way the rule served as “a stopper,” something that interfered with intuitive use of the product. The business of live sports, he felt, was full of stoppers.

But in 2021, Cue happened to be in Mexico while MLS commissioner Don Garber was there with one of the owners of the Seattle Sounders. They asked to get together for an hour to chat—typical globetrotting-executive stuff. “Next thing I know, we spent three hours talking together,” Cue said. “I walked away with more questions, but I was like, well, they’re in a position unlike any other sport where they own all their rights, they own them all worldwide.” (MLS had told its teams not to sign new regional rights deals beyond 2022—meaning that when its national and global deals expired, it would be able to negotiate new deals for all three.)

The two sides traded proposals over the course of a year, chewing through the big questions, Garber told me: “What was Apple’s view as to how they were going to enter the live sports business? And then from Apple’s perspective, what kind of partner would we be? What kind of commitments would we make? How willing are we to think about our media dynamic in a different way, less about a rights agreement and more about a long-term partnership?”

Eventually, Apple and MLS hit upon a deal: Apple would pay $2.5 billion dollars, over 10 years, for the right to broadcast every MLS game to anyone around the world who bought into the subscription package. “For the first time in the history of sports, fans will be able to access everything from a major professional sports league in one place,” Cue said in the press release. “It’s a dream come true for MLS fans, soccer fans, and anyone who loves sports. No fragmentation, no frustration—just the flexibility to sign up for one convenient service that gives you everything MLS, anywhere and anytime you want to watch.”

Garber told me that he was impressed by the way Cue seemed to balance his needs as an Apple bigwig with the needs of sports fans, more generally—or at least manage to align them. When Cue met with the MLS ownership group, Garber said, he “talked about his passion for sport and how it is one of the most important things in his life—and how committed he was to try to change the way a distributor views its relationship with a sports property, to start with what does the fan want, and then how could we work together to deliver on that? And that’s a very different perspective, because most—not all—media relationships are about filling a broad menu of offerings to fit into a schedule to fit into programming priorities.”

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