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MLS x Apple: Momentum, Marketing & Messi

Last Updated: August 3, 2023
MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Apple Senior VP of Services Eddy Cue discuss the future of the game, MLS’s partnership with Apple, and more.

Few executives in sports have been busier lately than MLS Commissioner Don Garber. In just the last few months, he’s helped bring a 30th expansion team to the league, orchestrated another MLS All-Star Week, and of course, oversaw the summer transfer of the world’s best player. It’s a busy period, and you can fully expect things to get more hectic with the ongoing CONCACAF Leagues Cup, next year’s Copa América, and in 2026, the FIFA World Cup.

This time last year, MLS made waves as the first league to sign an exclusive broadcast deal, tapping Apple to be its home for live coverage of every MLS regular season and postseason match, and home to the Leagues Cup for the next decade.

During this month’s MLS All-Star match in our nation’s capital, Garber and Apple senior vice president of Services Eddy Cue spoke exclusively to Boardroom about Lionel Messi’s historic arrival, the significance of Apple and MLS’s long-term partnernship, and recent criticism from a certain soccer player who took his talents to the Saudi League.

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VINCIANE NGOMSI: How exciting of a time is this for soccer in this country with the Leagues Cup, Lionel Messi, and the World Cup coming in 2026?

DON GARBER: The league has such enormous momentum and that momentum has continued over the years, but this year it seems to have a bit of rocket fuel. A new team in St. Louis that’s setting all sorts of records, announced our 30th team in San Diego. The launch, most importantly, of our global 10-year partnership with Apple, and then, we introduced Lionel Messi in Miami. So I think that the professional soccer business overall and Major League Soccer is driving the growth of a real soccer nation in the United States and we are in the right place at the right time to capture this incredible, almost generational opportunity.

VN: It’s very interesting because even right now and since All-Star Week started, you’ve mentioned St. Louis a lot. Is there a certain reason why you’re always referencing that city in particular? Perhaps because they’re the newest franchise?

GARBER: It’s just the right moment in time. I think the real story for us is it took us 27 years to bring a team to a very historic, traditional soccer market. You bring in the right owner with the right facility, the right brand, and the right vision for what they’re trying to achieve on and off the field and you defy expectations. I mean, they are arguably our largest revenue club from a ticketing perspective. They have enormous reach and scale within that community, and they’re leading the league on the field. So I reference it only because it just speaks to those opportunities that nobody ever thinks exist and then you connect all the dots and wonderful things happen.

VN: Let’s talk a little bit about Apple. How do you measure the long-term success of your deal and how can you better see yourself integrating Apple within the fans and the communities of these various franchises?

EDDY CUE: Well, most people will measure it by the number of subscribers. That’s not going to be the way we measure it. We’ll measure it by the interest level, the fan satisfaction, and them going, ‘Oh my God, MLS and Apple know how to do this so much better than any other sport.’ Those are all the things we care about. I’ve been with Apple 35 years — the numbers always work out if you’re giving customers what they want. And fans, I’ve always said, there’s never been a better time and there’s never been a worse time to be a sports fan. And we want to give sports fans what they want. I’m a huge fan and so it’s easy for me. I sit with my team all the time and I always tell them, ‘You guys aren’t thinking like a fan.’ Our mindset has to always be from the perspective of the supporters.

VN: What sort of pressures do you feel knowing that there are going to be more eyeballs on MLS than ever, and throughout the 10 years?

GARBER: It’s the opposite. I don’t feel any pressure at all. I feel like finally, we have a global megaphone to be able to take this league that has been growing its scale, its interest, its popularity, its connectivity, and now be able to really transmit that around the world. We’re doing it with multiple languages and with technology and an interface that is unprecedented. And to be able to broadcast any game everywhere without blackouts on any device, no sports league can deliver that. So I look at that as the best opportunity to be able to take everything we believe so much in, our fans believe so much in, and have it have a front porch to millions of fans that might not have been paying attention to Major League Soccer.

CUE: I don’t think it’s pressure by the way. I can say this because of Apple, obviously, there are very high expectations every time we make an announcement or introduce a new product. That’s a good thing and they should demand that. And so if they’re demanding that of us, it’s great for MLS and great for Apple if they want the best from us as opposed to a lack of interest. So, I’m glad that’s the case and it should be.

VN: You spent 16 years at the NFL and in that time, made strides in bringing football games overseas. This year, the All Stars are competing against a European club. Last year, it was Liga MX. Where do you find the sweet spot in identifying what will be the team they play? Is it just based on what the demand is at the moment?

GARBER: I think more broadly we’re part of the domestic North American narrative here and yet we’re playing the global game and 35% of our players are foreign — it’s higher than any percentage of any other major league in the United States, Canada. So we have been constantly working on trying to take our league and give it the global profile and global connections that our sport and our league really deserves. That’s very difficult to do without a global media partner. Prior to this, you had to go out and sell local deals in a hundred different countries and that’s the way the other leagues are going to have to operate until that model changes for them. We now have a partner that can give us access to a fan in Buenos Aires as easily as that fan can be in Miami.

So the Leagues Cup is an example of how we’ve tried to capitalize on a growing relationship in Mexico. No other league in the world has been able to create a cross-border competition and have its own mini club World Cup with its domestic border league. Three years against Liga MX led to the burgeoning relationship we have with them. Who knows what that will look like with the Premier League. Maybe we’ll play a team from Argentina or you know, a team from Brazil.

VN: With the ability to broadcast globally and make matches more accessible, have there been certain markets or spikes that you all have seen? Asia, South America, anything like that?

CUE: I think that it doesn’t matter now because of Messi, right? We’ve been at this for six months, it’s been a very short period of time. I wanted to make sure we were delivering together a best-in-class view of the live game. I think the teams have done an incredible job with that. And so we wanted to make sure every MLS fan says, ‘Wow, this is really great. This is the best broadcast of any MLS game there’s ever been.’ And we’ve done that. Our plan was to grow internationally in the future, but it wasn’t our top priority. Messi changed that completely. It’s like the interest level now internationally has gone up astronomically. And so we’ve been vast of doing partnerships with carriers, cable providers, all kinds of things to get mass distribution as fast as possible. So it’s easier.

It’s not just one player — it’s THE player. At his peak. That’s the other part of it. He’s a guy who just literally won the World Cup.

VN: As you’re building up soccer here in the US, a similar thing is happening in Saudi Arabia. Now you’ve got the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo saying, ‘Oh, the Saudi League is better than MLS’ and other jabs. Any thoughts?

GARBER: You know, I’ve had a long relationship with the Saudi League. I coached in the World League Forum. They’re great contributors to the game. This does sound like the commissioner’s speak, but it’s true. Emerging markets that are developing the game professionally are positive for the game because it isn’t just about Europe. We have all these established leagues in Europe, but the rest of the world is growing as far as the landscape of professional soccer goes. I think that creates opportunity and I’m just thoughtful about how it’s going to play out over time. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I remember the emergence of the Chinese League, the president of the country said this is gonna be our biggest priority. That has evolved over time and it’s probably not what everybody thought it would be many years ago, but they were signing the Cristiano Ronaldo’s of the world back then. So we’ll see. This is a long game. You know, I’m pleased that Ronaldo’s happy in Saudi Arabia and I’m really pleased that Lionel Messi’s happy in Miami.

CUE: And I’m happy Ronaldo’s watching MLS.

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About The Author
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.