Commentary / Union

The brave new world of American soccer broadcasting

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

On Tuesday night, a Concacaf Champions League Match was played in Chester, PA. As readers likely know both teams had everything to play for after a 0-0 draw in the first leg, creating the recipe for must-watch TV—not just for Union faithful or Alianza fans—but for anyone who enjoys the game of soccer and the spectacle of international club competition.

So, who saw it?

Well of course there were the several thousand fans at Subaru Park, with PA locals making up the bulk of the crowd but with a fine showing from Alianza supporters. Whatever that number, only so many people are able or willing to be at Subaru Park for an 8:00 p.m. kickoff…on a Tuesday…in near-freezing temperatures.

Therefore, broadcast media was left to carry a heavy burden. 97.5 The Fanatic, the Union’s official radio partner, has broadcast both MLS games this season but hasn’t broadcast either CCL game. Fox Sports, who holds the English-language television rights for CCL in the United States, aired the first leg on FS1 but showed a World Baseball Classic game and an Austin F.C. match against Haitian squad Violette AC during the second leg. Univision’s TUDN also aired Austin vs. Violette—giving viewers a choice of language but not programming.

This leaves the Union, and every MLS team not owned by Anthony Precourt, on Fox Soccer Plus—a channel almost exclusively available in optional sports packages for users of traditional (or semi-traditional in the case of YouTubeTV) cable providers.

Behind the wall

For those unable or unwilling to shell out for the Apple TV+ MLS Season Pass, the only Union soccer they’re likely to see are games they’re able to make it to in person, the match against Orlando later this month being offered as a free-to-view option on Apple TV+, and any nationally broadcast games (currently only September’s meeting with the Red Bulls on FS1).

Additionally, the US Open Cup is on the last year of a four-year broadcast deal with ESPN+, offering the potential for more Union matches but behind a different paywall. And there’s always the playoffs—standings willing.

Those of us lucky enough to be able to clear these hurdles seem to be enjoying a golden age of soccer, with MLS Season Pass being a clear upgrade so far over last season’s ESPN+ coverage, or the bygone days of MLS Live and MLS Direct Kick. Coverage is arguably higher quality than what was being provided by PHL17 or ESPN+. Maybe not in terms of broadcast talent, there can be no replacing JP Dellacamera, but certainly in packaging, picture quality, and blackout-free viewing.

Which means those of us who are in, are in. But if soccer is to grow beyond its current position as America’s fifth favorite sport, we need more than just us.

Do we need growth?

Interest in soccer is hard to quantify in this country. On one hand, you can point to MLS regularly hitting impressive ratings benchmarks for nationally broadcast games. But this doesn’t take into account the people who are fans of non-MLS soccer, whether it’s from other domestic leagues or international ones. Union fans, Arsenal fans, Cruz Azul fans, and NY Cosmos fans all like soccer, but they’re not necessarily getting counted together in any one metric.

The result is a fractured soccer culture, especially in contrast with the titans of American sports. If someone wearing an Eagles jersey passes someone wearing a Cowboys jersey, they’re going to say something. What that something is might be highly variable, but it’s pretty common that fans of football find other fans of football with ease—and they’re going to talk football.

On the other hand, what does a die-hard Union fan with no interest in European soccer have to say to someone wearing a Werder Bremen jersey? Anyone who’s tried to engage someone wearing Premier League merch in conversation about soccer knows how it usually ends—confusion, followed quickly by an offhand cliche about “their” team’s success or lack thereof, fan culture, or whatever. And then blank stares when you tell them you’re a fan of MLS.

The point is that soccer is plenty big in the US. It’s simply not homogenized the way the “big four” sports are. So, the reality may be that soccer can’t grow any further because it’s already as big as any sport is in this country, it’s just that we’re all fans of a sport rather than a league. We’re fractured. But so is the rest of modern media consumption.

A ratings game

The way in which we consume media, and what media we are consuming, has changed drastically over time. For example, looking back at the 1986-87 television season we see that the top two programs, The Cosby Show and Family Ties, each drew TV ratings over 30 (34.9 and 32.7, respectively). Meaning, over 30% of total TV households tuned into one of these programs at a given time during the season.

Compare this to 2021-22, when the top two programs were NBC’s Sunday Night Football and Fox’s Thursday Night Football, with ratings of 5.0 and 4.3. The highest-ranked non-sports show, This is Us, drew a paltry 1.5 rating. Shows simply don’t grab our attention the way they did years ago.

Soccer doesn’t need to win the ratings race because ratings are dead. The absolutely massive selection of media available to us today doesn’t mean media is dying, but rather that the paradigm is shifting away from the idea that success means dominating the airwaves. Success means pleasing your fans, and for the most part, MLS seems to be doing that.

We aren’t alone

As a final note, it’s worth considering that this situation is not without parallel on the continent where “real” soccer happens. PSP contributor James Nalton recently published an article in the UK’s Morning Star discussing how the vagaries of British broadcasting rules meant that a Premier League match between Manchester United and Leeds was not broadcast on British TV—not via basic cable, not via a streaming service, simply not available.

If The Football Association, the governing body in the country that invented the modern game, is unable to get one of the highest-profile teams in the world, playing a league game in the highest-profile league, in front of people, maybe we don’t need to worry so much about MLS Season Pass being less than ideal.


  1. pragmatist says:

    Awesome breakdown, Jim. The comparison of ratings from the 80’s is eye-opening. We all knew that to some degree, but to see it spelled out is stark.
    All viewing is splintered as broadcast entities figure out how to marry streaming with conventional cable. At the end of the day, the Apple deal is great, as long as they can expand the free national coverage. They need a larger footprint on over-the-air networks in order to draw larger audiences into the Apple package. We’ll see if that happens over time.

  2. Jeremy Lane says:

    I like the point about pleasing the fans you already have over the pursuit of growth. Not that it’s either/or but it’s not something much of the conversation around MLS Season Pass has spent time on. For me, someone who isn’t living in the Philly area anymore, Season Pass means I don’t have to jump through hoops to watch Union games and that’s a huge relief. And the quality has been outstanding. Yes, I’m sure there are local Philly fans for whom it is an annoying and an added expense to watch the team now after losing the local broadcasts. League-wide? That number is pretty small.

    Now, if Apple could just find a way to show me the replays without spoiling the score or putting highlights in my face, I’d feel really good.

    • “ Now, if Apple could just find a way to show me the replays without spoiling the score or putting highlights in my face, I’d feel really good.”
      YEEESSSSS PLEASE!!!!!!!!

    • Eric Boyle says:

      There is an option on Apple TV+ to turn off sports scores. I read that could help with spoilers if you want to catch a replay. I am not sure whether this works with MLS season pass. I may find out this Saturday, as I am forced to miss the first half of the game against Montreal.

      • Jeremy Lane says:

        That works for me on Roku (not on the web) but even then it doesn’t hide everything after a certain amount of time has passed and you still have to scroll past highlights to get to the replay. It can definitely be improved.

  3. So I paid the $15/m for FSP on DirecTV. I did it ’cause I can cancel at any time. WAs happy I did it since the game was great to watch. But the quality on FSP was bad; was definitely not HD. Will monitor what else is offered on FSP and may just cancel it before the end of March unless other Union games will be shown there. Would actually love to go to Guadalajara to see the game there. Will Philly Sport Trips organize a trip?!

  4. My understanding is that there are rules reducing televised games in England as a way to ensure that televised games aren’t shown during the window where most teams have their scheduled games. That way there is no risk of TV reducing the number of fans in the stands for the smaller teams in the country.

  5. Apple and MLS are claiming that 40% of the games will be outside of the paywall. We don’t know how often the Union will be part of that 40%, but it’s probably safe to say that Union fans who don’t subscribe to MLS Season Pass will get a chance to see the team on TV several times. If that 40% is distributed evenly between teams, that’s 13-14 games. I subscribed to Season Pass this year because the Union are good, but if they sucked like they used to, I’d probably be happy with 13 games and save the money.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I would wager the 40% will not be evenly distributed, which would mean fewer free Union games.

      • It will be interesting to see if the 40% contains more of the bottom feeder games, more of the elite games, or more of the teams that MLS and the media “want” to be elite.

  6. Success means pleasing your fans, and for the most part, MLS seems to be doing that.

    What a load of crap. This is a double pay wall (first apple then MLS) Try to find a game at a casino or a bar or any other public location because it won’t happen.

    This was a short sighted money grab that will kill picking up any new fans for the league.

    • FCdelcofella says:


      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        Twenty eight years that strategy was used and what were the results? Money grab is what pro sports is all about and if you’re paying attention college sports as well.
        You can also see games at a bar if they have direct TV business. Buffalo Wild Wings shows the games.
        Using the money grab to build the league, MLS Next Pro and Academies plus training centers is how you’ll raise the quality and that will please the customers that are all in.

    • Jim O'Leary says:

      One doesn’t need “regular” AppleTV to get MLS Season Pass. It’s available as a stand-alone subscription, you just use the AppleTV app/site to access it.

      So it’s only a single paywall, if you’re subscribed to “regular” Apple TV that’s your decision.

    • soccerdad720 says:

      Nattering naysayers of negativity will always abound. Good luck my brothers.

      Mr O’leary….fabulous breakdown and bestowal of perspective. Well done.

  7. Scott of Nazareth says:

    I was disappointed to hear that there was a cost on top of the standard AppleTV fees. I would regularly watch or DVR games on PHL17, so this season is an adjustment.
    While I’ve heard the arguments justifying the costs and the minimal monthly breakdown, I haven’t purchased the season pass and probably won’t simply because of multiple other streaming service costs, plus the regular cable bills start adding up.
    That all said, I still get why MLS went this way. Soccer doesn’t lend itself well to traditional television economics where expensive commercials can be crammed down viewers throats during game breaks. It will be interesting to see what, if any, long term impact this might have on “growing” the fan base though.

  8. Chris Gibbons says:

    Cable is broken. Streaming is broken. MLS has nothing to do with either except to say their broadcast partners the last decade or so have been atrocious. Low quality feeds, utter disinterest in the content, minimum viable engagement with fans, etc… Paying $150/year is too much for something that used to blend into a cable bill or be mostly free with an antenna, but fans got what they paid for with the bargain basement prices: bargain basement production.

  9. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m going to disagree with those who say the quality of the feeds on Apple are better than those in the past. Yes, they are better than those at many of the away games, but I always thought PHL17/6ABC had excellent video feeds for the home games where they were the ones producing them. We didn’t have an overemphasis on player closeups when the ball was in play elsewhere on the field.
    Apple, on the other hand, seems to have cameras much further away. While watching the Miami game (the only road game so far), I felt I needed binoculars to see who the players were and where the ball was.

    • +1
      HD on PHL17 was always great. DVRd every game to see replays, even on home games when I was at the stadium.

    • For some it’s not an improvement but for others it is. For those like me who could not receive PHL17, were still within market and blocked from ESPN and forced to watch the feed from the Union website, Apple TV is a huge improvement. The video resolution is way better. And the feed doesn’t drop in the middle of a game. Even though the view does seem further away, because it’s HD I can still see better than the Union stream. Hopefully with feedback Apple will improve production issues.

  10. This is all a symptom of the underlying condition, which is… that TV is a complete mess these days. All of it. Fractured, awkward, messy, and complicated.

    People complain about having to pay “extra” for MLS now, but… maybe the problem is that cable is stupid? If you pay Apple $79 and can cancel your cable, that’s actually a giant savings.

    Now, of course, maybe you wanna watch other sports too. But then the complaint shouldn’t be “why did MLS do this?”, but “Why *doesn’t* the NBA do it too??

  11. And we can never forget Apple+ made an offer to Don “Grabmoremoney” Garber he could not refuse. No other media outlet was offering even close, according to broadcast industry news.

    The bottom line still is… the 10 year deal was agreed to no matter the cost or inconvenience to core, loyal fans… or the complete inhibition of local market marketing for new fans.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      There was no local marketing before Apple, nor was there much money.

    • So? As you literally said, $2.5BN is way better than the league was gonna get anywhere else. That’s huge and will help grow the game. Don’t forget 6 games PER WEEK are completely free to anyone (no subscription required) and there’s still a weekly national TV game.

  12. I’d like to see if Apple charges the season ticket holders for their services. I signed up using the link provided by the U. You still had to give a card and all the other stuff Apple demands. I’m on a Galaxy phone but was able to use my wife’s IPhone and set up the TV for streaming. If season ticket holders get the Pass for free…do we still have to pay for for the Apple tv service?

    • Eric Boyle says:

      My understanding is that the Pass is separate from the streaming service, so no. For non-STH users the cost is discounted if you already have Apple TV+ but you don’t have to subscribe.

      • Thanks EB! I haven’t made it to the 1 month of viewing yet so I thought I would ask the folks hear who most likely have a better handle on streaming. The bride and I are total newbies!

  13. Brian Sweeney says:

    Okay agree problem is with Apple + services is that not going grow MLS Soccer even US Mens and Women’s games going HBO. No one is looking to watch Soccer games on HBO. Pay services killing availability for casual fans watch sport soccer. Apple needs take money put some talent to Pre-Game broadcast or just let regional games announcers talk about game.

  14. Open Cup is not on ESPN+ anymore. Games will initially be streamed on BR Live and Youtube. Eventually may be available on HBO Max for later rounds.
    Weren’t a lot of the same arguments and detractions being said 20-30 years ago when Hockey, NBA and MLB games moved to cable TV (i.e. PAY TV)?
    Totally understand the older generations not liking the move away from “traditional broadcast models.” Change isn’t easy. Familiarity can be a good thing. That said….the old model for MLS wasn’t working. They had to try something different in order to move the league forward.

  15. MLS just needs to continue to improve over time and more and more fans will flock to it. The ability to watch high-level soccer in your own backyard should not be underestimated. It’s growing somewhat slowly but it’s growing. And the quality is growing very rapidly…which will only increase the eyeballs.

    Paramount is also launching an all-soccer
    channel (with a focus on MLS) on April 11th. It will be a sportscenter-esque channel. That’s huge. What’s even better, is it will also be FREE to everyone on Pluto TV.

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