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Rumors of slow subscription growth for MLS Season Pass make sense, but Apple won't care (yet)

If the most sensational rumors are to be believed, Apple is looking for a quick exit from its 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with MLS while the league prepares for an NASL kind of collapse into oblivion. 

The Athletic previously detailed an opt-out clause in the contract predicated on Apple obtaining a certain number of subscribers within a set timeframe, but it's impossible to speculate from the outside since Apple hasn't released any viewership statistics through six matchweeks.  

But the tweet that triggered Monday's Twitter storm came from @MLSGoneWild, although it's not nearly as raunchy or Spring Break fueled as the namesake implies. 

It's obviously really hard to take this tweet seriously on multiple levels, but I would honestly bet on that 40 percent number being very, very close to the truth. What I wouldn't bet on is Apple TV executives being "very worried" about that initial number. 

I've been in this American soccer media industry for a long time now. Sometimes when you follow the money, you realize that those with the money have no f***ing clue what they're doing and can be convinced by the stunning linguistics contrived by the digital age, but how could Apple — the purveyors of dollaring you for unnecessary things — fall for such a trap? You can't bullshit a bullshitter.   

Apple is valued at $2.63 trillion — they're not going to panic and bail after six weeks, especially on what is a really well executed product.  

Looking at the ratings last season, there was zero evidence of a burgeoning television audience for the league. Match attendance has never been better, but gains across ESPN's English-language networks were offset by declines across the Fox family of networks and a big drop in Spanish-language telecasts. Although MLS Cup got big ratings, there's no way Apple executives crunched the numbers, looked at each other and said, "Folks, we've got another Ted Lasso on our hands." 

The entire history of the league up until now points to slow and steady growth, not smashing overnight success. But, based on the conversations we've seen around MLS Season Pass, what's currently holding it back?

#1. The price point

Is $99 too much for access to every game in the regular season, playoffs and Leagues Cup (all in stunning picture quality), along with the All-Star Game and the 360 show? Absolutely not. Is it a price tag that immediately turns off soccer fans already paying for Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+? Absolutely.

With March Madness dominating the headlines and European soccer approaching the business end of the campaign, it's been easy to dismiss MLS Season Pass as too expensive, especially when you can do the mental gymnastics of directly comparing the cost and quality of watching the EPL vs. MLS.

Having said that, the whole criticism of MLS's "quality" has never made less sense. Of all the leagues around the planet, MLS sent the sixth-most players to the World Cup. Besides, I typically sit down to watch soccer as a form of entertainment, not to live out my dreams of pretending I'm a high school teacher grading papers over the weekend ("Unsuccessful touch, minus a point for Cincinnati!"). I've wasted many Saturday mornings watching Leeds United this season — I wouldn't call it "quality" time.

It's also worth noting that an exceptional amount of MLS fans got Season Pass without paying a dime (reporters, influencers, giveaways, season ticket holders, T-Mobile subscribers, etc.), and that other people are content with the amount of matches still available for free on Apple TV and Fox Sports. 

If you're hugely invested in your team then you've already subscribed, but is there much value outside of that? Personally, I think the 360 simulcast is really well done, but I can't stand whip-around shows — I need to be locked into one match for 90 minutes to get my kicks, and that brings us to the second point...   

#2. The lack of marquee players and transfers 

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I'm a Minnesota United fan. Bally Sports North, the previous home of MNUFC, was hell, and I like knowing that I'll catch every match this year without a problem. Having said that, the Loons are one of only three unbeaten teams remaining across MLS and I'd be the first to admit that they're not pleasing on the eye. They'll grind the life out of you with the defensive midfield tandem of Wil Trapp and Kervin Arriaga, but I don't think neutrals really give a shit about that approach. Emanuel Reynoso is dearly missed.

Minnesota's a microcosm of a league that's alarmingly short on star power. In a season where I can watch any team with the press of a button, MLS is missing the draw of Atlanta United with Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón, the LA Galaxy with Zlatan Ibrahimović or LAFC's brief ability to potentially field Gareth Bale, Carlos Vela and Giorgio Chiellini together.

The excitement surrounding Xherdan Shaqiri has long passed. Lorenzo Insigne has only played 34 minutes this season because of injury. Watching the vibe at CityPark for St. Louis matches has been fun, but the novelty is wearing off. Jordan Morris is now the star boy.

Save us, Sang Bin Jeong.   

#3. What now?

Christopher Harris of World Soccer Talk wrote a good article about "MLS' annual siesta" over the next three months as the narrative descends into all 29 clubs claiming they've been disrespected and that they're a lot better than people think. It's a pretty weird time.

The playoff race is more of a leisurely stroll at this point (Vancouver is currently above the line in the West with a record of one win, three draws and two defeats), and although the Leagues Cup can only help draw subscribers, that doesn't begin until July 21 (two days after the additional draw of the MLS All-Stars playing Arsenal).

What can MLS do? Well, ESPN's Julien Laurens says Lionel Messi is less likely than ever to extend his PSG contract, and he's still open to playing in the U.S. (as long as his $44 million annual contract is met). With MLS Season Pass available around the globe, bringing Messi to the league would solve this little subscriber problem. It's either that or make a huge deal out of Jesse Lingard joining D.C. United.

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