Viewers are flocking to Apple TV Plus – and it’s all thanks to Lionel Messi

Apple MLS promo picture
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple TV Plus made a 10-year $2.5 billion deal with Major League Soccer and it appears to be paying off. According to Jorge Mas, one of Inter Miami's owners, in a Tweet then shared by Apple's Tim Cook, subscriptions to Apple's MLS Season Pass have more than doubled – and it's all down to Lionel Messi.

Messi is a genuine sporting superstar and his arrival in the US has kicked soccer's appeal into orbit since he started playing in the US this July. He's popular with everybody and has a particularly big fanbase among the Spanish-speaking community. According to Mas: "Spanish language viewership on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV has surpassed over 50 percent for Messi matches and continues to rise."

Apple doesn't talk subscriber numbers but before Messi arrived it was believed to have around 1 million MLS subscribers on Apple TV Plus, so doubling that in a month is pretty impressive. As Tim Cook said to investors last week: "It's clearly in the early days, but we are beating our expectation in terms of subscribers, and the fact that Messi went to Inter Miami helped us out there a bit. And so we're very excited about it."

The big sports battle isn't happening on the pitch

There's a lot of money to be made from sports streaming, which is why the best streaming services are all over it. For example, as we reported last week, Warner Bros. Discovery's Max plans to add sports streaming for games from MLB, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Collegiate Athletics Association, including college basketball's March Madness. 

According to research by Ampere Analysis, streamers will spend $8 billion on sporting rights this year. That's 21% of global sports rights investment, up from 13% last year. "The exclusive NFL deal with Amazon that kicked off in September 2022 was arguably the turning point for sports on general entertainment OTT platforms," the firm says. "It represented the largest single deal signed to-date by any sports streaming service, and has since been surpassed only by YouTube – also with the NFL."

The reason sports have become a big deal all of a sudden is partly because sports broadcast and streaming rights tend to be signed for fairly long periods – typically several years if not decades – so a lot of deals were made before streaming tech was as good as it is now. And the streaming market has become much more competitive in the last couple of years, with lots of big firms using their very deep pockets to put huge amounts of money on the table. 

And the reason is pretty obvious. As the New York Times reported last summer, "last year, sports accounted for 95 of the 100 most viewed programs on television". That's persuaded many services to look again at sports, which streamers such as Netflix had not previously been interested in because of its focus on live events rather than rewatching – it has since changed its tone with plans to launch its first live sports stream in the coming months.

Whether the streaming services will actually recoup the huge sums of money they're spending is currently a moot point. For the tech firms, what matters right now is getting the rights and getting the eyeballs that go with them.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.