By Jason Snell
March 9, 2022 10:42 AM PT
Apple’s big baseball deal, detailed
It’s not every day that Apple announces an entirely new Mac model, as it did Tuesday with the unveiling of the Mac Studio. And everyone knows that Apple’s track record on releasing standalone displays has been sketchy in recent years. But on Tuesday, Apple also did something it has never done before, namely announcing a wide-ranging deal with a major sports league. According to Mike Ozanian of Forbes, the deal is worth $85 million annually over 7 years ($595 million in total) with opt-outs after the first and second years.
For years, there have been rumors that Apple was building out a live-sports infrastructure. Streaming live video is not the same as streaming on-demand video; while prerecorded content can be loaded up in advance on wide-ranging content-delivery networks, live content is coming down in the moment, and must be relayed to everyone watching. And of course, even the most popular on-demand content is viewed asynchronously across hours, or days, or even weeks, while live sports are almost entirely viewed right then, meaning that streamers have to support much higher concurrent viewers.
Major League Baseball was actually a pioneer in this space, building up MLB Advanced Media, which was sold to Disney and is the bedrock of Disney’s streaming strategy (including ESPN). And now here comes Apple, with the first of what is likely to be multiple sports deals to increase the value of an Apple TV+ subscription. (The company is rumored to be bidding on the NFL Sunday Ticket out-of-market game package, and has also been named in various reports involving college conferences including the Pac-12.)
What Apple is getting
Though NBCUniversal’s Peacock is rumored to be picking up ESPN’s old package for Monday and Wednesday night games, what Apple is doing is an entirely new license from Major League Baseball, containing three separate products:
MLB Big Inning. This is a live show every weeknight, airing only in the U.S., that features “highlights and look-ins” of the day’s games. If you’re familiar with the NFL Red Zone product, in which a studio host zips the viewer around to different live games when interesting things are happening, it’s a little like that—but for baseball. I’ve wanted this sort of thing for years—as a subscriber to the MLB At Bat package, I get streaming access to most games, but I have to flip around myself to avoid commercial breaks. MLB Big Inning should do that work for me.
Linear and on-demand archival content. You might think that modern streaming video comes in two flavors, on-demand video and live events. But there’s a strawberry to go with that chocolate and vanilla: linear streaming. This is, essentially, replicating the experience of tuning into a cable channel and seeing what’s on—24/7 streams of content where all you have to do is pick the channel and let the content wash over you.
A lot of services have sprung up around the idea that just because streaming TV enables video on demand, sometimes (as my Downstream podcast compatriot Julia Alexander told me this week) “you just want to turn on the TV and watch something while you fold laundry.” NBC’s Peacock comes with dozens of these channels, Paramount owns PlutoTV, and there are many others.
Now it seems that Apple will be getting into the 24/7 linear channel business (Update: My pals at MacStories point out it already has a linear music channel!) thanks to this MLB deal, offering a channel in the U.S. and Canada “with MLB game replays, news and analysis, highlights, classic games, and more.” This is probably just a remix of the content in MLB’s library that gets rolled out on the MLB Network cable channel, but this stream will be exclusive to TV+. And for those who don’t have laundry to fold, a lot of this baseball content will also be available on demand.
Friday Night Baseball. This is the big one. Every Friday during baseball season, Apple TV+ will air two games, presumably at staggered start times for east coast and west coast audiences. These games will be available in the U.S. and eight other countries.
These games won’t be rebroadcast from the feed of local teams but will be produced by MLB for Apple. (It’s unclear if MLB will employ dedicated announcers for these broadcasts or offer merged broadcast booths with announcers from the two teams playing.)
Apple couldn’t pick up the feed from the local teams, anyway, because this is an exclusive deal. If you’re a fan of the San Francisco Giants or the Los Angeles Dodgers and they’re playing on a Friday night on Apple TV+, you can’t tune that game in on your local cable or broadcast channel, or even out-of-market on MLB At Bat. It will only be available on Apple TV+. And yes, this means that every Friday, there will be angry baseball fans wondering why they’re locked out of watching their favorite team unless they pay for Apple TV+1. (On the other hand, Friday Night Baseball might reach fans who have cut the cord or otherwise don’t have access to baseball games.)
Update: Several people have asked: “But what about ad breaks?” My guess is that Apple won’t sell ads into these games, but will instead use the time between half-innings to promote other Apple TV+ content (including baseball stuff) and possibly to show highlights from other games. Maybe also a roving in-stadium reporter who will do some light feature stories in some of the breaks.
What it all means
A lot of baseball fans will spend this year grousing about this deal, just as they did about Facebook’s exclusive games the last few years. And they’ve got a point: A lot of us have become accustomed to having every single one of our team’s games available to us, and exclusive streaming deals fly in the face of that.
So there’s short-term pain here. But the truth is, this is the long-term future of televised sports. Right now, baseball is propped up by revenue from regional sports networks (RSNs) that have paid enormous amounts of money to sequester their product on cable so that it’s impossible for fans to cut the cord. The problem is, fans are like everyone else, and they are cutting the cord. At some point, the guaranteed revenue from RSNs will collapse, and leagues that rely on that revenue will be in deep trouble.
MLB’s deal with Apple, and the forthcoming one with Peacock, are an indication that MLB may have found a replacement for that sweet, sweet RSN money—streaming services. Does this mean that we may enter a period where you’ll need multiple streaming services to see your favorite team? Probably so. Just like you need multiple streaming services to watch all your favorite shows.
I imagine this will all shake out eventually, and fans of a particular team will be able to buy a single product and guarantee that they’ll see every single game, no matter whether they are in that team’s market or outside of it. But it’s going to take years, and the winding down of a whole lot of RSN contracts, before things clear up.
In the meantime, there’s this: Apple is getting into sports, and live streaming, and even streaming linear channels. This deal will probably be the first of many. It will be interesting to see how Apple TV+ as a service grows and adapts to a new world where it isn’t all just about CODA and Ted Lasso, but about the Yankees and the Red Sox, too.
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