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Evaluating MLB’s new deal with Apple TV+

A new streaming service secures the rights to “Friday Night Baseball.”

Syndication: Northwest Florida Daily News (nwfdn) DEVON RAVINE via Imagn Content Services, LLC

If you follow the tech space closely, you know that there’s long been some questions about the direction of Apple. The world’s most valuable company sits on about $200 billion in cash on hand — enough to buy every MLB, NBA, and NHL team and still have enough kicking around to make a good faith effort at buying Budweiser. Their competitors have been extremely active in ambient computing (a better, more accurate term for the “Metaverse”), and Amazon has aggressively entered the live sports market, acquiring the rights to stream select Yankees games and Thursday Night Football.

During an Apple event on Tuesday, the baseball world learned that the tech giant was preparing to direct at least some of its formidable financial weight into live sports themselves, announcing a deal with MLB to stream an exclusive Friday night doubleheader beginning in the 2022 season. These games will only accessible through Apple’s streaming platform, Apple TV+.

Apple will pay just south of $600 million over the next seven years, not quite enterprise-equity type of money — Amazon put up a billion dollars to buy into the YES Network, streaming 21 games in their first season and more scheduled for this year. Still, at $85 million per year, it represents a significant investment in baseball broadcasting, where Apple clearly thinks reports of the game’s demise are exaggerated.

For Yankee fans, I would imagine that we’re about to see at least a couple games moved behind the Apple wall, given that the new Friday Night Baseball format would be wise to secure some of the league’s premier franchises for the first run of the new service. I’d expect at least one Yankees-Red Sox game on the platform, and at least one Dodgers-Giants or Dodgers-Padres game early in the season as well.

Apple will also be putting together a nightly highlight show in collaboration with MLB Network, along with the now-standard pre- and postgame coverage we expect from a premier baseball presentation. I think they’ll do particularly well here — while I’m not the biggest fan of Apple’s initial offering of original content, the production value is incredible, and comes along with the territory of a $200 billion bank account. If you think about the programming that Apple offers, like The Morning Show or the various Oprah shows, having deeper pockets than anybody else pays off by allowing you to bring the most visible talent under your tent.

For the broader baseball fan, well, this is one more thing you’re going to have to pay for if you want to watch as much baseball as possible. Apple did say that for a “limited time,” the games will not require a subscription — just an account, in that classic “first one’s free” model we’re pretty used to seeing in streaming. Apple TV+ does “only” cost $5 a month, but adding that to a personal budget that might already include Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, the aggregate weight of all those subscriptions can be greater than the sum of their parts.

I’ve talked before about my issues with YES broadcasts, and the main ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast for that matter, especially the way that they struggle with communicating advanced metrics particularly well. It often feels like the production views the information provided by Statcast as a novelty, presenting exit velo or sprint speed without much context or illumination. This becomes particularly obvious when you watch other booths — not just the ESPN Statcast broadcasts, but Bally Sports West and others integrate the data in a way that YES just can’t match.

I then wonder what, if any, changes will be made to YES broadcasts with this new competition. Apple TV+ lags well behind Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ in terms of total subscribers, with a reasonably high level of churn — folks taking their free trial or subscribing for one month, then leaving. I have to think that Friday Night Baseball has to do something different in order to convince people to add another streaming service to their bundles. Maybe that’s a more data-heavy broadcast; maybe its a goofier or more gimmicky show (though I think the former is much more likely given how careful Apple is with their image and brand).

On the whole, its too early to predict the impact that Apple TV+ will have on MLB. At the very least, we know that this is yet another new revenue stream, that coupled with the anticipated billion dollars of gambling revenue and the announcement of another streaming deal with NBC’s Peacock demonstrate just how many ways MLB owners can make money — not that that’s relevant to the current state of the game, of course,

Personally, I’m excited by this deal. Is it going to be a headache trying to remember which platform is airing tonight’s game? Definitely; I’d never argue that. But there’s just something to the brand and the space that Apple commands that’s unlike any other company in tech. I have a well-worn joke about how Tim Cook will put together $500 worth of circuits and sensors, tell us all that we will pay $1,300 for it, and we do, every time, because the brand is so powerful.

And Apple does take that power very seriously, which leads me to guess that the production of this Friday Night Baseball streams will be at least on par with the best of the broadcast networks, if not better. People want to be associated with the Apple name; there’s a reason why AirPods would be a Fortune 500 company on their own despite not being the best wireless earbuds on the market. Apple’s going to be able to attract the best talent to their streams, bolstered by spreading around some of that cash, and as long as they take the actual production of the game seriously, Friday Night Baseball could become as premier an event in MLB as it is in college.