After launching Apple Sports, is Apple set to shake up the sports business game?

What the new app means for the business of sports at large: what it can and can't do.

NBA via Apple Vision Pro
Live-Sport-Übertragungen über die Apple Vision Pro könnten künftig mit Daten aus der neuen Sport-App angereichert werden. (Foto: Apple)

Apple has made no bones about its interest in getting involved in professional sports. First, it shelled out several billion euro to acquire the live broadcast rights to MLS, then it released initial use cases with the NBA for the Apple Vision Pro. Last week’s launch of its own sports app, however, still managed to catch everyone off guard. With it, Apple aims to give fans statistics and a plethora of data from various sports via Apple Sports. While its current functionality is rudimentary at best and has yet to be rolled out internationally, global experts told OMR that the company figures to be drawing up an extensive gameplan behind the scenes.

The NBA, the NHL, Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga—among others—have already been integrated into Apple’s new sports app. MLB and the NFL— the world’s most-lucrative sporting league—are set to follow when the new seasons begin (MLB in late March and the NFL in early September). "We developed Apple Sports to give sports fans what they want - an app that provides incredibly fast access to scores and statistics," says Eddy Cue, Senior Vice President of Services at Apple.

So, what can the app do?

Scores and stats

The honest truth at the moment is not all that much. Users can customize scoreboards and play-by-play information, check out line-ups and team statistics, see upcoming games and get live betting odds. It’s also connected to other services, such as Apple TV, meaning that fans are just one click away from watching live matches. In theory, at least.

From a purely technical point of view, however, various restrictions and limitation abound. For example, the app is currently not available for MacBooks or iPads, but only for iPhones running iOS 17.2 or later. Apple Sports is also currently only available in the USA, Canada and the UK.

Nevertheless, the app’s launch has caught the attention of fans and industry insiders alike. It could, after all, be the start of something much bigger. And quite a few decision-makers in the sports space are now asking themselves three things in particular:

1. What role will the new app play in Apple's future sports strategy? ⁠2. How could Apple Sports evolve in the short, medium and long-term? ⁠3. Is this just the start of significant investments in sports for Apple moving forward?

App to serve as the new sporting home for the Apple-verse

One person qualified to answer said questions is Peter Hutton. Originally from England, Hutton resides in California and is one of the world's most experienced managers in the sports media market, with an all-star résumé: head of the sports division at Meta from 2018 to 2023, CEO of Eurosport and leading positions at Fox Sports Asia and ESPN Star Sports.

"In its current form, the app does not represent a major step forward in terms of content," Hutton told OMR. However, he goes on to add that Apple Sports has the potential to be "developed as a sports hub within the Apple ecosystem on all devices, including the new Vision Pro and future hardware." The Vision Pro in particular offers "the opportunity to watch sports and access your own sports data at the same time", outlines Hutton.

Sascha Kojic agrees. "Sport has always been a means to an end to bring new technologies and products to consumers," says Kojic, a sports media rights expert with a proven track record on the international market. Kojic tells OMR that in his eyes, topics such as virtual reality can "only reach a pervasive market maturity through sport." "Apple will not view the sports app in isolation, but as part of the entire ecosystem. This will result in interesting models for rights holders," believes the marketing expert.

Gamechanger Apple Vision Pro?

The Apple Vision Pro, which launched in 2023, could actually become both a central building block in Apple's sports strategy and a kind of gateway for immersive experiences in professional sport after giving it the old college try for years in developing practical use cases.

The PGA Tour, NBA and MLB have recently seen a significant uptick in applications from sports leagues for the Apple Vision Pro and the corresponding buzzword "spatial computing." Major League Soccer (MLS) is probably the most prominent sports showcase in the Apple empire, thanks in part to Lionel Messi. The tech company secured the global broadcasting rights for the US professional soccer league in 2023 and is reportedly paying the heathy sum of around USD 2.5b for a ten-year contract. On the Apple Vision Pro, fans can access the "Season Pass" via the Apple TV app and watch all MLS games on the "Infinite Canvas" display - "Viewers will feel every heart-pounding moment in 8K 3D with a 180-degree field of view and Spatial Audio that transports them to each match," according to Apple.

Combining match and statistics data from Apple Sports with live sports content, as in the case with MLS, which in turn is played on various devices from the iPhone to the Vision Pro, is one reason why experts like Hutton are bullish on the new sports app—especially "because the App Store is increasingly overcrowded" and Apple has "a big advantage here as an easy-to-find point of contact for the general sports fan." Carlo de Marchis agrees. "Imagine opening your Apple app to not only check the score, but also watch the game live. With this special Apple Sports ecosystem in their pocket, fans are in pole position," the sports tech expert posted recently on LinkedIn. Apple Sports therefore has the potential to become a kind of "one-stop shop."

Apple: The future home of live sports en masse?

A prerequisite for such a scenario would first and foremost be augmenting the status quo with additional video content. Sports leagues and industry experts have been looking hopefully towards the corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, for years anyway and consequently always mention Apple in the same breath as other players such as Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Paramount whenever relevant sports media rights are put out to tender.

This is also the case in Germany. A quote from Fernando Carro, CEO of major soccer club Bayer 04 Leverkusen, is telling. "It's no secret that they are increasingly interested in soccer as a product. The question is: are they limiting themselves to one country or do they want to acquire rights for the Bundesliga product in several countries? I know they’re looking into it and and my hope is that they will get involved," he told German soccer publication Kicker (in German) a few months ago.

This burgeoning hope is fueled by Apple's bustling activities in the sports documentary business and other sports rights efforts by the Group in recent years. In 2022, for example, Apple wanted to secure NFL rights, but lost out in the bidding war with Google subsidiary YouTube.

Apple wants international rights

Carro's statement is exciting in that the bidding process for the national media rights of the German soccer league (DFL) is heating up with the new four-year package set to go into effect for the 2025/26 season. However, almost all experts still doubt that Apple will play a serious and relevant role here. One of the reasons is, to put it simply, it makes no sense for Apple to buy the entire national live rights for the Bundesliga in Germany for just under EUR 1b per season. Although this would be legally permissible under German commerce regulations (the “no single buyer rule” will soon be abolished), it would entail a massive spend for Apple for just a single market—no matter how important it is.

In contrast, the Bundesliga will only generate just over EUR 200m this season from the sale of media rights for all international territories combined. In theory, Apple could, for example, strike a much cheaper deal and secure the audiovisual rights for all markets outside Germany for significantly less money than the national rights. But it's not that simple, because from the perspective of providers such as Apple, there is another problem: the territorial limitation of the rights, i.e. the rights are not sold as a bundle, but on a market-to-market basis to different companies and with different contract terms.

Groundbreaking MLS deal

Regardless of the rights situation of the German Bundesliga, the purchase of the MLS rights is a clear signal of intent for Apple's future live sports endeavors in terms of their global validity. "The MLS offers a great distribution model – the global rights to every single games of a single league. And I expect Apple to look at similar global deals as they build case studies of what works for their platforms," says Hutton. He justifies his assessment with reference to personnel decisions from the recent past, among other things. Apple has retained "some very impressive executives" from the media industry, namely: Frank Uddo (Fox Sports, MLB, WWE, ESL, among others), Jim De Lorenzo (Amazon, among others) and Christian Nyari. The latter has already worked from New York as Head of Media Americas for FC Bayern Munich and as Global Head of Advertising Strategy & Partnerships for sports streaming provider Dazn. "They definitely look at major content deals and check whether they make sense for Apple," says Hutton.

Just like Hutton, Kojic "absolutely expects" Apple to acquire additional sports media rights after the MLS deal. "I believe Apple will look at global partnerships beyond the US without restrictions - but not according to the usual, traditional models we know from the past," he says. The MLS deal was an indication of "the direction it can take," even if the US soccer league is "anything but a premium right internationally and therefore falls more into the experimental investment category." An investment that, according to Kojic, was a very good one from a "value for money" perspective, especially given the recent spike in international attention after Messi’s move to Inter Miami from Paris Saint-Germain.

Either way, Apple "undoubtedly has both the financial resources (total revenue for 2023: USD 383.3b editor's note) to acquire premium rights globally and the capacity to monetize them," Kojic says. Especially as, in his view, there are also "quite a few rights holders who would want to use Apple's reach alone - without any compensation. It will be interesting to see whether Apple will also occupy niches in sport or limit itself to premium content," says Kojic. After all, the interests of Apple users are very diverse, while the end devices and services are in the premium price segment. "Sports content can also serve relevant customer groups in the niche market with sports such as golf, sailing or winter sports. And they don't cost billions to acquire," says Kojic.

However, Kojic is quick to point out that it doesn't necessarily have to be live sports rights to jump start Apple Sports. "Especially in the non-live area, investments are manageable and premium content is easier to acquire than rights to live broadcasts," he says. In his view, "gaming or even betting offers paired with video content" are also "realistic product development options."

Apple Sports is a peak data harvester

OIt remains to be seen whether and which sports video content Apple will prioritize moving forward. What is certain, however, is that the new sports app could play a central role for a completely different reason, namely "data."

"Apple's entry into sports opens up access to a treasure trove of user data. This gives the company a significant advantage in developing a commercial sports strategy, from acquiring rights to developing content," British sports media expert Tom Hines told OMR. Apple could, for example, use the app to track which sports, leagues, teams and even individual athletes receive the most attention. "This real-time data on fan engagement is more detailed than what traditional TV broadcasters normally access," says Hines, founder of the consultancy agency J40 Media. The same applies to data on the type of content Apple Sports users interact with, such as news snippets, highlights or detailed statistics.

To Hines, Apple Sports is therefore a "treasure trove of data." The former Head of Media at Arsenal London and current interim Entertainment Director at Chelsea FC outlines a whole range of competitive advantages that the data from the sports app could bring to the tech company in the future. Apple

• can leverage demographic and interest data gathered from the app, coupled with their vast user data ecosystem, to serve highly targeted advertisements. This opens up revenue streams for Apple and increases the value proposition for potential advertisers.

• can potentially predict shifts in fan preferences and identify which sports or leagues are likely to experience a surge in popularity by applying advanced analytics to their data. This gives them a first-mover advantage in acquiring rights and developing content for these areas

• can drive the development of personalized features on Apple Sports and Apple TV+. Imagine curated feeds, tailored sports news updates, and even content recommendations based on individual viewing habits. This boosts user engagement and loyalty.

With detailed data on fan preferences, Hines says Apple can also "aggressively pursue sports rights" that match the demographics and interests of the target audience. Kojic sees it similarly. "Due to the sheer mass of sports fans among customers and users,” he says, “Apple will receive very valuable data via the new app, which in turn will influence future decisions on sports partnerships and possible rights investments."

Summary

Many experts believe that Apple Sports will be much more than the rudimentary app for match and team data that it currently looks like from the outside. Rather, the launch will give Apple a strategic advantage in the highly competitive sports media landscape. This in turn could lead to the acquisition of rights and highly personalized, data-driven sports content that will appeal to a large audience.

Or as Carlo de Marchis puts it: "Rivals should take notice of Apple's aggressive move here. The tech giant just planted their flag for sports supremacy, with ripples sure to reshape fan consumption habits for years to come"

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Scott Peterson
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