As far as billion-dollar partnerships go, they don’t get any more fortuitous than the one Apple has inked with Major League Soccer.
Precisely a year after the initial announcement of their decade-long commitment with MLS Season Pass, which only officially kicked off at the top of 2023, the league would welcome football’s reigning GOAT — Lionel Messi — who, as you may have heard by now, will spend the next two-and-a-half years at David Beckham and the Mas brothers’ Inter Miami CF.
And right from the outset, the Argentinian superstar’s deified aura has been palpable, to say the least.
The Messi Effect
Prior to Messi’s arrival, the cheapest ticket for Inter Miami’s July 21st match — the date of his projected debut in a pink jersey — was selling for just $29. The price after the confirmation he was making the move? $467 (and multiples of that on the grey market).
Inter Miami’s Instagram account was yet another key benchmark for the ongoing hype. Seemingly overnight, the bottom-tier MLS side’s followership skyrocketed beyond 10 million, surpassing Italy’s Inter Milan, dwarfing every NFL franchise in the process, and joining the elite company of NBA heavyweights.
At the time of this writing, Inter Miami had not conceded a single match since Messi laced up stateside; earning the team’s first-ever trophy with the 2023 Leagues Cup, as well as punching their ticket to the US Open Cup finals where they’ll face off against Houston Dynamo FC (scheduled for September 27th).
Beyond Inter Miami alone, the MLS Season Pass viewership numbers also paint a pretty distinct picture.
Prior to Messi’s arrival, industry insiders had indicated paying subscribers were nearing 1 million. According to Jorge Mas, that figure has more than doubled in less than two months.
“We are excited about our MLS partnership, and we’re thrilled to see Messi suiting up with Inter Miami,” Apple CEO Tim Cook noted at the latest quarterly earnings call (via Yahoo Finance).
“It’s clearly in the early days, but we are beating our expectations in terms of subscribers, and the fact that Messi went to Inter Miami helped us out there a bit — and so we’re very excited about it.”
Elsewhere, company spokesperson Tom Neumayr revealed that the week of July 19th–26th had “… the three most-watched matches ever on MLS Season Pass, with viewers in almost 100 countries and regions around the world. And the fans for those matches were roughly split between the MLS Season Pass English and Spanish language broadcasts.”
But even before the game-changing arrival of Messi to Inter Miami CF and, by extension, the MLS/MLS Season Pass as a whole, anybody keeping a close eye on the numbers could’ve told you the league wasn’t just a rich ground for opportunity.
By all accounts, it’s the future.
Follow The Money
To understand the current trajectory of the MLS (as well as Apple’s MLS Season Pass from an investment standpoint), we need to go back a few years.
Before “The Messi Effect,” it was all about “The Beckham Effect.”
As the most significant signing to the American league since Pele decided to play for the now-defunct New York Cosmos circa 1975, Becks obviously commanded a hefty compensation package.
The most fascinating detail about his LA Galaxy contract, however, wasn’t the upfront salary. It was the provision that allowed him to acquire an MLS expansion franchise in any market except New York City at an extremely reasonable fixed price of $25 million once he retired from competition.
For context, back then, $25 million actually worked to the benefit of the MLS; Toronto FC had only just joined for $10 million. As David Beckham’s presence and sheer star power elevated this previously neglected market, so too did the level of financial investment.
It’s to the point where $25 million is now a relative bargain when compared to the $500 million Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Mansour will fork out for his newly proposed San Diego team.
“A $500 million expansion fee instantly makes San Diego’s MLS team more valuable than Premier League clubs like Newcastle United ($440 million), Leeds United ($380 million), Aston Villa ($370 million), and Crystal Palace ($335 million) — despite San Diego not having its own stadium or ever playing a competitive match,” notes sports-business expert Joe Pompliano.
“San Diego’s $500 million expansion fee is 2.5X more than the $200 million fee St. Louis City SC paid last year, 5X more than the $100 million fee New York City FC paid in 2015, and 50X more than the $10 million fee Toronto FC paid in 2007.”
As you now know, Beckham opted to establish Inter Miami CF, and by the time they debuted in March 2020, the club was already the 10th most valuable MLS franchise with an eye-watering $580 million valuation — close to 24 times the original $25 million expansion fee. And they hadn’t even begun to develop any kind of reputation.
In fact, we’d go so far as to say this was never truly a “gamble” for Apple.
You don’t build a two-trillion-dollar company on a whim. Every single decision, ever dotted Is and crossed Ts, is calculated and deliberated to the nth degree.
That’s why when Apple decided to direct their attention to Major League Soccer after dipping a toe in the world of sports with Major League Baseball, success was all but guaranteed.
“We’ve looked at sports for a long time, mainly because my personal feeling is there’s never been a better time to be a sports fan and never been a worse time,” Eddy Cue, Apple Senior Vice President of Services, told BH during MLS All-Star Week.
“Everyone always wants the ability to watch multiple games at once, but it’s really hard to do because again, they’re all distributed in different ways, different rights, all that kind of stuff. With us, it’s really easy.”
Cue recalled the occasions he’d travel to his holiday home in Mexico, only to be geoblocked from streaming college basketball games. And so he decided this undertaking would have to be for all the whole pie. Not just a slice, however large it may be. Although, it wasn’t enough to simply deliver total, uninterrupted coverage across the globe.
As per the Apple philosophy, the MLS Season Pass had to be a best-in-class experience. Thankfully, they had decades of experience in personalising consumer journeys to leverage. The result was entirely unique sports broadcasting/streaming market product.
As we’ve previously outlined, the subscription service features everything from dedicated club pages where team matches are automatically served along with relevant featured content (match previews, replays, spotlight stories); and playlists comprised of songs + artists that “embody the cultures” of each respective club; to a toggle function that hides live match scores, thereby preventing spoilers when you’re behind on real-time events; as well as Multiview — enabling you to follow up to four games simultaneously (the MLS can have as many as 14 games going in a single night).
Cue added: “[Sports] is the most awesome unscripted drama there could be like. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“When I say today MLS is gonna be the biggest soccer brand in the world, it sounds crazy. But why not? I mean, really: why not? The US is a massive market; it happens to be in the Americas market, where there are a lot of soccer players and soccer is the #1 sport anywhere south of the US.”
“Over a 20-year period, 10-year period, this thing can be huge and it should be huge… I think if we’re right, over the years, sports will look more like us. But we’ll see.”
**Note: All $$$ = USD (not adjusted for inflation)