Apple has made TV streaming deals with Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and is rumored to be negotiating with multiple other leagues, including the NFL and the Dutch Eredivisie (first-division soccer). Clearly, Apple thinks that live sports are a way to get people who have avoided embracing streaming TV to finally make the jump. (Amazon feels the same, which is why it bought the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package.)
I think it’s a smart strategy. An old boss of mine often shared the adage that in order for your product to be bought, it must first be considered. (Yes, he used to sell advertising for a living.) Lots of tech-savvy people embraced streaming long ago, and Netflix has managed to put its apps on almost every electronic device manufactured in the last ten years, but there remains a very large audience–older and not as tech-savvy–who are comfortable watching cable TV but decidedly uncomfortable finding Apple TV or Prime Video.
Sports are a great motivator to get many of them to learn. The big issue is that I’m not sure Apple’s TV platform is ready for them to arrive.
The first issue: sports fans often want to keep tabs on more than one game at a time. If the reports are accurate, Apple and MLS are working to concentrate games in two primary windows. Many games will be going on simultaneously. And yet the ability to watch more than one thing at a time on Apple’s devices, especially tvOS, is extremely limited.
tvOS offers a picture-in-picture feature, but I’ve found that it works only with some apps, only occasionally, and largely only within those apps themselves. Major League Baseball’s tvOS app used to have its own multi-game viewer interface that was excellent; a couple of years ago, it adopted Apple’s picture-in-picture instead, and it was a huge step back.
Last year I cut the cord and started watching TV via an over-the-top cable service, Fubo TV. Fubo TV was initially a sports-oriented service, and it shows: its MultiView feature is excellent, allowing me to watch two, three, or four games at once, along with optional game stats and a live scoreboard. YouTube TV is working on a similar feature.
Four college football games on at once can be sports-fan nirvana. Or a baseball game and a basketball game. Or a tennis match and two NFL games. I’ll also point out that if you’ve got a 4K TV, each of the frames in a four-up MultiView is the equivalent of a full 1080 HD television set. It looks good.
Of course, all is not well. If I want to watch two games on the Fubo TV app and another game that’s only on the ESPN+ app… I can’t. MultiView is only for content in the Fubo TV app.
If Apple is serious about sports on the Apple TV, it needs to add the ability to place multiple video streams, from multiple apps, in a single viewing interface. I want to be able to place an ESPN+ basketball game next to a Paramount+ NWSL soccer match next to an Apple TV MLS match. That’s going to require tvOS to do the heavy lifting.
Another barrier for sports fans, as my friend John Gruber pointed out on my podcast this week, is the ability to flip back and forth between “channels” easily. While this isn’t just a sports issue, sports viewers feel it more acutely: you want to flip back and forth between two different things that you’re watching. Two NFL games, let’s say, on two different local channels.
My Fubo TV app handles this easily. You hold down the center button on the Apple TV remote, and it sends you to the previous channel. You can do this endlessly to toggle between two different programs.
But what if you’re going back and forth between live streams on two different apps?
Well… then you’re out of luck. The most direct way to do it right now is to double-tap on the TV button to bring up the tvOS multitasking view, then swipe to the other app, then click. Not very direct nor very friendly to new users who are just getting into streaming.
The LAST button on a cable remote control has been there for years. It’s understandable. Apple needs to set a tvOS standard gesture to view the video playing in the previous app.
Embrace the linearity
Finally, another feature Apple should embrace if it’s going to welcome the refugees from the world of cable to its shiny new streaming future: old-school linear channels. These might feature sports, news, or entertainment programming. There are plenty of free, ad-supported streaming services (like PlutoTV, for example) out there. Being a member of a streaming service probably gets you even more (like the many streams on Peacock and Paramount+). And, of course, there are currently-live sporting events on various apps.
What does the Apple TV not have? A true, honest-to-goodness live program guide that lets you flip from channel to channel to see what’s playing right now. (My friend Joe Rosensteel has been frustrated by this for a while now.
In the rush from cable to streaming, the pendulum swung all the way from no user control of content streams to everything being on demand. Now the pendulum is swinging back. While on-demand programming is great, sometimes you just want to flip around until you find something interesting to watch.
Apple’s TV app on tvOS should offer a view that essentially replicates the live guide from a cable or satellite box: A list of every content stream that’s available to you based on what apps you’ve installed and what services you’re logged into.
Getting sports fans to finally check out your service is a smart bit of strategy. The next step is to get them to feel at home when they get there. Apple’s got work to do on that front.