Fire midfielder Fabian Herbers is a fan of MLS’ new broadcast deal with Apple TV that takes effect next season. And he has a very personal reason for supporting the pact: it will make matches easier for his father to watch back in Germany.
“Sometimes the VPN doesn’t work, so he has to put his location into the United States so he can watch the game,” Herbers said. “So I was just happy personally for my dad, for my family, so it makes it easier overall globally to watch the games and I think for MLS it’s a huge step forward to get consistency in the games.”
Beyond Herbers’ family, the 10-year agreement has significant implications for the league and Fire.
Announced in June, the $2.5 billion deal pairs MLS with one of the world’s most global brands and one known for technological innovation. The agreement also ends digital blackouts and makes it easier for MLS fans to know where to watch their teams, as every game will be available on the same platform. The league is also expected to carve out separate deals with traditional English- and Spanish-language networks for a smaller handful of matches – that would still be simulcast on Apple TV – to maintain some exposure on broadcast television.
“We like the deal with Apple very much,” Fire owner Joe Mansueto told the Sun-Times in July. “It’s a transformative deal for Major League Soccer. I don’t think you could find a better partner than Apple in creating a world-class consumer experience to view our games, and in exposing the club to a vast global audience.
“I’d underscore that global audience; MLS has never really had that, and now will be available in 100-plus countries around the world.”
The deal, though, has some potential drawbacks.
The MLS package will be available on a subscription basis. And perhaps most crucially for the Fire, the deal means the end of local broadcasts, taking them off WGN after effectively replacing the Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox on the channel in 2020.
“I guess the negative is I have loved being on WGN in Chicago,” Mansueto said. “We have, I think, a best-in-class broadcast team in Tyler Terens, Tony Meola, Arlo White [and] the quality of production. Being on Channel 9 has a special meaning in Chicago. Formerly the home of the Cubs, what I grew up watching on Channel 9, the Blackhawks have been on it. It’s just kind of been the sports channel in Chicago. It’s free, available to everybody, and so I’ll certainly miss being on WGN.”
The subscription nature of the deal could potentially limit the chances for casual fans to find a match and enjoy what they see, which might hurt the Fire’s efforts to get viewers to sample their product. One of Mansueto’s major objectives since taking over for Andrew Hauptman has been to reintroduce the Fire to the city, and along with shifting back to the lakefront, WGN was a significant part of that initiative as the team’s viewership has been building on the station.
Mansueto will miss the potential “serendipity” from WGN, and he said friends of his came across the Fire and loved it after watching some action.
“That’s one of the negatives of the Apple deal from my perspective, that we’ll miss being on WGN, having it free to all Chicagoland,” Mansueto said. “We’re trying to build the Chicago Fire brand here in Chicago and WGN was phenomenal for that. Free, people can stumble across it, get hooked. That’s going to be a little harder, candidly, in the short term with the Apple deal.”