These days, when Apple talks about its streaming service, Apple TV Plus, it’s not in a late reveal at the end of a big product rollout, as “just one more (very cool) thing.” It’s at the front, usually something to note as the company’s execs hurry on to the latest gee-whiz hardware announcements.
Such was the case again Tuesday, when Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in yet another slickly produced, pre-recorded hour-long pitch for a string of interesting new products. Right at the top, though, Cook stopped long enough to mention that the world’s most valuable company is getting into live sports, specifically Major League Baseball.
“We're really excited about this,” Cook said. “This is going to be the best way to watch baseball” on the company’s various devices through Apple TV Plus.
It wasn’t much of an announcement, a short trailer and a few lines about his excitement for a deal reported to be worth $85 million a year over seven years.
That price is chicken feed, and not much of it, for a company that once again just reported the greatest quarter in the history of capitalism, raking in $83.4 billion in revenue over the holidays, up 29% over an also-excellent 2021.
For its paltry poultry-dinner payout, Apple gets two exclusive games a week on Friday nights, whenever MLB resumes its lockout-delayed season. So, that’s something.
But the modest deal actually represents a whole lot more for Apple, MLB, and how people consume live sports. Though Cook’s announcement was skimpy on details (specifics are difficult when MLB keeps cancelling games) there are lots of potential big issues here, whenever Friday Night Baseball finally debuts:
> Will Apple create its own live broadcast team and production crew to handle these games? Creating such a team for only baseball, for two games in different locations on a single night, seems like a lot of organizational distraction and expense for modest return. That strongly suggests other sports programming is on the way, possibly even that much-rumored takeover of the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package after next season.
> If this is only the start of Apple’s sports ambitions, will it also bid for upcoming college sports contracts from top-tier collegiate leagues such as the Big 10 and Pac-12 as they become available? College sports tend to be much more regional in their fan bases (just like baseball), and also create a lot of programming (just like baseball), especially if a deal includes women’s teams and non-revenue sports.
> Does Apple partner with MLB.com, one of the OG league streaming operations in pro sports, to carry the games? For that matter, is this a dress rehearsal for a bigger partnership between Apple and MLB.com that might include the tech giant taking over MLB’s streaming-media operations?
> Is Apple planning to create “shoulder” content to run around and between live streams, including talk shows, behind-the-scenes content, pre-game and post-game studio conversations and much else? Again, that’s a lot of time and money for something that would run only, say, 26 weeks a year, and maybe much less than that this year, given the intractable labor dispute.
> How will Apple fill the time between innings? There’s a lot of time between innings in a baseball game. Typically, broadcasters and RSNs fill that time with a lot of lucrative ads. Will Apple finally get into running ads from other companies? That seems unlikely, given that using data to drive those ads would be counter to Apple’s oft-stated indifference to weaponizing data for commerce. Does that mean that Friday Night Baseball will mostly be running house ads for Major League Baseball, Apple products and TV Plus shows? How soon will we get tired of those?
> As a corollary to fewer or no ads, will game streams be shorter than the notoriously endless broadcasts and cablecasts now out there, because there aren’t ads, or very many of them? Will shorter games make for a better product, at a time when Major League Baseball is trying desperately to shorten games (which ran a record average of 3 hours, 10 minutes in 2021)?
> These “exclusive” games mean no one else is running them anywhere, right? Cook said those games won’t be available to watch anywhere other than TV Plus. What does that mean for the already-ailing regional sports networks out there? Do they lose yet another slice of their programming, even as they’re already being shoved onto premium tiers and the ash heap of history? What does it mean for Sinclair’s planned streaming app, which will have geo-fenced games from a handful each of MLB and NHL teams?
> Speaking of watching, who is going to watch baseball on a Friday night? It’s not prime time for TV for just about anyone. Throw in the aging demographic that is baseball fans, and this doesn’t seem to be a growth opportunity. On the other hand, if Apple is only running house ads, the only demographic that matters is that they’re fans of baseball and Apple.
Other streaming services – Amazon Prime Video, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Vix Plus and of course ESPN Plus — have jumped strongly into streamed live college and pro sports, including from the NFL, English Premiere League soccer, the Olympics, NBA, and the NHL. Indeed, MLB also just did a deal with Comcast’s Peacock, for another $30 million a year for Monday- and Wednesday-night games that formerly ran on ESPN.
All the streaming services see live sports as a way to lock in a set of ardent fans, perhaps pulling them away from the traditional cable/broadcast bundle.
Indeed, the more of these kinds of deals happen, the faster we’ll see cord-cutting accelerate (another 4.7 million households dropped cable service in 2021; only the “skinny bundle” virtual MVPDs saw any growth, according to Leichtman Research Group).
As for Major League Baseball, suiting up with Apple is a win on several levels. It carves out a new source of revenue for a league that was battered economically during the pandemic, is getting killed in the court of public opinion over the lockout, and, as mentioned earlier, has an aging fan base. And new money is particularly useful when you’re fighting with your talent over who gets what share of the revenue pie.
Add in the Peacock deal and baseball will be streamed on major services at least three nights a week, providing a potential off-ramp for MLB from dependence on that fading cable bundle. Who knows, it might even help MLB’s owners pay for all those really bad and hugely expensive signings they’ve made over the past few years. Probably not, but it may just be the beginning of baseball’s shift to a streaming future, with Apple by its side.
NEXT TV NEWSLETTER
The smarter way to stay on top of the streaming and OTT industry. Sign up below.
David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.