This Is Why MLB Was Willing to Get in Bed with Apple for ‘Friday Night Baseball’ Streaming Rights

What’s in it for MLB?
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There’s no doubt that getting Major League Baseball on Apple TV+ is a massive coup for the streaming service, but it’s less clear exactly what’s in it for MLB.

Apple has been trying to break into sports broadcasting for years. Long before any of us had even heard of Apple TV+, Apple was courting the NFL to try and get the rights to Thursday Night Football — and it’s been persistently trying ever since. It’s tried for NFL Sunday Ticket, live collegiate sports, and likely a few other deals that never moved beyond initial talks.

It’s also repeatedly failed to garner any real attention. It’s generally gotten beaten out by rivals like Amazon since no matter how much money Apple can put on the table, others can offer the one thing that Apple can’t — viewers.

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After all, it doesn’t matter how much money Apple is offering if there’s nobody watching. So, when we heard that Apple was pursuing a deal with MLB, it was still quite a surprise when something came of it.

According to Forbes, Apple also managed to get Friday Night Baseball for a song — at least from the perspective of a $3 trillion company. Sources say that Apple agreed to pay only $85 million annually over seven years for the rights. That’s peanuts compared to the $1 billion per year that Amazon pays to play host to Thursday Night Football.

While one could argue that Thursday Night Football is a bigger deal than Friday Night Baseball, it wouldn’t be a strong argument. Any advantage Thursday Night Football has is likely more about the nature of football fans vs. baseball fans. Thursday Night Football has long been considered unprofitable by the traditional networks. Most analysts believe that Amazon picked up the rights mainly as a “loss leader” to bring in more subscribers.

Of course, the same is likely true for Apple, which almost certainly hopes to increase the profile of its streaming service. However, $85 million is also a much easier pill to swallow. That’s about the same cost as producing six episodes of one of its hit shows and far less than it drops on major film projects.

What’s in It for MLB?

What’s more of a mystery is how Apple convinced MLB to play along for a mere $85 million a year.

Although we’ll probably never know all the details, the Los Angeles Times spoke with Noah Garden, the chief revenue officer at MLB, to try and get a sense of exactly what the league is up to.

According to Garden, the most significant part of the Apple TV+ deal isn’t about the money; rather, it’s about the reach — getting MLB games in front of as many eyeballs as possible, both domestically and internationally.

It also appears that Apple’s promise to offer Friday Night Baseball for free for a limited time was part of the deal. This isn’t just an Apple promotion; it’s something MLB very explicitly wanted.

The other big thing for us, at least initially, is that this is free, in front of a paywall. You don’t need to be a subscriber to Apple+ to access it. We’re pretty excited about it.Noah Garden, Chief Revenue Officer, MLB

Until at least June 24, Friday Night Baseball is available to anybody with an internet connection and access to the Apple TV app. While Apple has said this is only for a limited time, it’s unclear when this will change, nor how much say MLB has in it.

Notably, Garden says that he expects Apple to “probably” put it behind a paywall, but it also sounds like Apple hasn’t made that decision yet.

They have the ability to put it behind a paywall. That is something I would probably expect them, on some level, to do. That’s a decision they’ll make down the road.Noah Garden, Chief Revenue Officer, MLB

Garden explains that the Apple deal is a way for MLB to reach out on a national scale, particularly when it’s suffering from cord-cutters and “cord-nevers.” Apple not only brings MLB games to a “huge domestic” audience but also expands its international reach far beyond what MLB has been able to accomplish in the past.

MLB is primarily a U.S. sporting league, with only one Canadian team — the Toronto Blue Jays — rounding out the 30-team roster. However, Apple TV+ brings those games to a global audience of baseball enthusiasts; it’s also available in Australia, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, and that’s likely just the start.

In this case, Apple reaches into every single home, with their products and their app. Taking some of these games and making them national just gives more people the ability to watch them.Noah Garden, Chief Revenue Officer, MLB

Still, baseball remains a local sport for many folks — many people only tune in to watch their home team play. However, Garden believes that the Apple partnership will help even for those fans since it will expose significant local games to a broader audience.

Garden also says it’s time for broadcasters to shake off the stigma of streaming services. While there’s traditionally been a view that streaming something will negatively impact viewership, it’s no longer the reality.

Much of that, Garden says, is a result of the pandemic, which forced more people to stay at home. However, the reasons don’t matter; people’s behavior has changed, and there’s simply no going back. He points to Apple’s Best Picture Oscar win for CODA as a prime example. “That’s a movie that was only streamed.” A couple of years ago, the idea of a streaming movie winning an Oscar would have been laughed at.

I never thought my mother would call me and say, “Have you watched ‘Ozark’ on Netflix?” I didn’t think she would ever find Netflix. But, when everybody was stuck at home in the pandemic, they started consuming every bit of content they could find, and now it’s second nature. We feel like streaming has reached that critical mass, where putting exclusive national games on there are going to be additive to everything else we do and reach the broadest possible audience we can.Noah Garden, Chief Revenue Officer, MLB

Nevertheless, Garden is quick to point out that “linear” games — where fans can follow their own team — are still the essential thing for MLB.

Bundles are not going away, Garden says, and fans will still be able to see their team play all its games without juggling subscriptions. However, the league has to acknowledge that “there are a lot of people that fall outside the bundle.” Even people in L.A. are left out by some cable providers.

The goal of Friday Night Baseball and deals like it is ultimately to help MLB reach a much broader audience. “If we didn’t think that was going to be the effect, we certainly wouldn’t do it. We don’t want less people viewing our content,” Garden added.

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