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The Apple TV Plus entry into sports may not pan out the way you think

OPINION: I’m a fan of Apple TV+. It feels like every time it’s mentioned and discussed at an Apple event I have to pipe up and say to people that, yes, it’s a pretty good video streaming service and you should give it a try.

It’s not an SVOD service you might necessarily think it would be from a company like Apple, but that’s what makes it so interesting, and Apple’s entry into sports streaming may fit a similar line of thinking. Their entrance into the market has been a persistent rumour since it started – it seemed a slam dunk, a case of when not if.

But it’s a field with plenty of competition. Amazon made a play by acquiring rights to ATP tennis tournaments and the Premier League football Christmas schedule. ESPN has gobbled up US college sports and more, while Discovery/Eurosport’s access to various European sports (and now the Olympics) makes them a big player.

If the BT Sport merger goes through, Discovery would occupy an even bigger part of the pie, and you may think to yourself why Apple doesn’t barge their way into the end zone and buy BT Sport, but I’d wager they have a more global perspective on things than to pay a large sum for a company that operates in a single territory – it’s a cul-de-sac in terms of expansion.

But it still makes sense for Apple to move into sports. Plunging millions and billions into acquiring film and TV content can (surprisingly) only get you so far. Sports acts as almost soft-power in that people don’t just turn up for a film or TV show and bolt off, they’re going to stay for the entire season – if not longer.

The announcement of Friday Night Baseball on Apple TV+ was probably not so expected. Outside of the U.S. and Japan, baseball doesn’t have the highest profile, in fact I’d go as far to say that it’s a poor (poor) man’s cricket. But that may be why it makes more sense for Apple to go for it.

It’s a great fit

Baseball may make a good fit for expansion in a similar way the NFL expanded its presence internationally over the last decade. Obtaining rights to Friday Night Baseball is a small piece of the overall season, like Prime Video’s Premier League schedule, and the switch from linear TV to streaming taps into iPads and iPhones as the way to catch the action. If you’re thinking Apple is going to make that bid for a season of Premier League (and they easily could, given their cash reserves), I’d say think again. I don’t think they’re going to be rivalling Sky Sports or BT Sport.

Apple positions itself as a daring and forward-thinking company but there’s a conservative streak behind its decision making. They tread lightly rather than aggressively in areas where they’re not top dog. Baseball seems a case of dipping their toes into the water and seeing what bites, and it’s that conservative outlook that makes me believe their entry into the market won’t result in bids for the biggest and most popular sports, but like its TV/film side, Apple TV+ will be a hub for smaller, niche programming.

What I can see is Apple making a play to bring specific events and US sports to the service. NFL seems unlikely given its tie-up with Sky Sports for the next few years, but maybe the NBA, MLS, women’s football, NASCAR and Indy Car could be an area Apple hangs its sports ambitions on. Apple TV+ has made a small step into a very congested area of the market, and everyone’s eyes will be on what they do next. Apple will be hoping they don’t score an own goal as TV+ needs to push forward or face being left behind.

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