Lionel Messi boosts MLS, but soccer league needs more

Lionel Messi after scoring against FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium on August 06, 2023 in Frisco, Texas.

Logan Riely | Getty Images

Superstar Lionel Messi has only played fewer than 10 games in the U.S. men’s professional soccer league and he’s having never-before-seen effects.

Messi joined Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF in late July, triggering a rise in ticket prices and the markets the team has so far visited. His signing led to record-breaking jersey and merchandise sales. TV and streaming viewership surged.

“I don’t want to say we underestimated Messi coming to the MLS, but it’s been unbelievably impactful to our league across all points,” said Camilo Durana, executive vice president of Apple partnership, properties and events.

Still, while Messi has had an unprecedented effect on MLS, which was founded in the 1990s, it hasn’t been enough to catch up to the other more prominent professional sports leagues in the U.S. like the NFL and NBA, in terms of viewership and ticket prices.

“The MLS needs more Messi’s,” sports consultant Lee Berke said, noting MLS’ history of bringing over stars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry in the twilight of their careers and beckoning more fans and viewership in those moments.

On top of competition from other, more established leagues for top players, Saudi Arabia has also joined the mix recruiting players with offers of boatloads of cash from its Public Investment Fund, including Messi. Brazilian soccer star Neymar recently accepted an offer, following soccer legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, with contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Messi effect

The Argentine superstar joined the MLS in July, coming off a World Cup victory in 2022. Messi left the French team Paris Saint-Germain after reluctantly exiting FC Barcelona in 2021 – his home since signing with the team at the age of 13.

The 36-year-old, often considered the “GOAT,” or “greatest of all time” in the sport, is nearing his retirement and giving MLS – still considered to be in its infancy compared with other U.S. leagues – a much needed boost.

Supporters of Argentinian soccer player Leo Messi gather outside the Inter Miami DRV Pnk Stadium, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, July 11, 2023.

Marco Bello | Reuters

Since joining, Inter Miami rose to the highest-selling MLS team for tickets from the 13th spot on StubHub.

Since joining Inter Miami, Messi is the top-selling player across all sports on Fanatics, a digital sports platform that sells gear and team merchandise, a company spokesperson said. In the time since Messi joined Inter Miami, the team has sold more merchandise than it did in all of 2022 on Fanatics. And he’s been a boost to MLS’ TV home on Apple’s streaming service.

MLS’ Durana also said that the surge in ticket sales came immediately when Messi announced his intention to sign with the league. “And the best part is, he came to play,” said Durana of Messi’s stats since his arrival. 

Messi so far has only played in the newly expanded Leagues Cup, a tournament between North America’s two leagues MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, and a U.S. Cup semifinal game. Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup on Aug. 19, and Messi scored at least one goal in all seven of the games he played in.

On Saturday, Messi will play in his first regular-season game against the Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey, about a 30-minute train ride west of Manhattan.

“These are numbers we don’t see at a MLS match normally,” said Marc de Grandpré general manager of the New York Red Bulls regarding ticket sales. He added lot of people who aren’t fans will be coming to the arena just to see Messi.

Looking to ride this wave, teams are pushing season tickets as a surefire way to see Inter Miami play again next season at face value.

Ticket prices on the secondary market have shot up. The average ticket price for Inter Miami on StubHub is $161, nearly 64% higher than the league average. Nationwide match-up ticket sales are up, too.

The overall average MLS ticket price is up to $98, while the average ticket price for the Leagues Cup overall was $152. For games that Messi has played in, the average ticket price is more than double that at $329, according to StubHub.

While this has been a boon to MLS, these stats still lag behind the NFL and NBA.

“It’s hard to compare this to other sports. Yes, what we’re seeing in pricing for the MLS for Messi games is unprecedented. But if you look at average ticket prices for NFL Sunday games, that’s still king in that sense,” said StubHub spokesperson Adam Budelli.

Anytime Tom Brady – who retired from the NFL earlier this year – was on the road during his last few seasons with Tampa Bay before retiring, StubHub saw ticket prices and demand surge in those markets, too. Or when Lebron James was chasing the NBA’s all-time scoring record earlier this year. 

“Those average ticket prices were still three times what we’re seeing for Messi games so far this year,” Budelli said.

Playing catch-up

Like ticket sales, viewership for MLS games lags far behind professional U.S. sports leagues.

Disney‘s ESPN averaged 14.8 million viewers for each of its NFL games last season while the 34 regular-season MLS matchups it aired in 2022 on ABC and ESPN’s networks averaged 343,000 viewers. This marked the highest MLS viewership across Disney’s networks since 2007.

Quantifying viewership for this season is difficult as the majority of MLS games are exclusively on Apple’s streaming service.

“This is a primarily streaming-only package. If there was a robust linear TV presence, Messi games would find their way onto major prime-time slots and get high viewership,” sports consultant Berke said.

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waves to the crowd as he runs off the field after defeating the New England Patriots in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman | Getty Images

Apple and MLS signed a 10 year-deal that started this season to broadcast matches. Matches are accessed through MLS Season Pass, a standalone service and an add-on to the Apple TV+ streaming service.

The partnership is just months-old, but MLS said subscribers have more than doubled since Messi’s arrival, and Spanish-language viewership on MLS Season Pass has surpassed 50% for Messi matches.

An Apple representative pointed to comments made by Apple CEO Tim Cook during a recent earnings call, and Jorge Mas, Inter Miami’s managing owner, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, regarding the MLS streaming subscribers since Messi’s arrival.

“It’s clearly in the early days, but we are beating our expectations in terms of subscribers, and the fact that Messi went to Inter Miami helped us out there a bit,” Cook said during the August earnings call.

MLS’ media rights deal with Apple came as the league saw an opportunity with its young fanbase, which tends to lean toward streaming, MLS’ Durana said. Since the League Pass is also available globally, it allows MLS to expand its fan base across U.S. borders, where soccer is typically the dominant professional sport unlike the U.S. 

MLS did sign a four-year deal for some of its matches to air on traditional TV networks, which includes select regular-season games, the Leagues Cup and MLS Cup.

Leagues Cup matches averaged 680,000 viewers, higher than every MLS postseason average ever, according to Nielsen. In total, 13.6 million people tuned into the Leagues Cup games.

For the few games that have appeared on traditional TV this season, MLS is averaging 250,000 viewers season to date.

As media companies still figure out the economics of streaming – and how to make it profitable – sports has remained a driver of viewership on broadcast and pay TV. And the lucrative fees that stem from media rights deals have propped up leagues and teams, often allowing them to invest more heavily in players.

“You need to invest in more players. In order to do that, the league’s economics need to change,” Berke added. “And it’s not easy when other leagues, and now the Saudis, are throwing money at top players, too.”

Durana of the MLS noted the league has spent billions investing in its clubs, from players to stadiums, as it grows its following. The Red Bulls’ de Grandpré said Messi validates MLS’ growth and presence on a global scale.

“Now I think we’ll see more players want to come and join this league, and it will help us over time to build on this momentum,” de Grandpré said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Camilo Durana’s title to executive vice president of Apple partnership, properties and events at MLS.

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