Lionel Messi after scoring against FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium on August 6, 2023 in Frisco, Texas.

Logan Riely | Getty Images

Superstar Lionel Messi has only played less than 10 games in the US men’s professional soccer league and is making an unprecedented impact.

Messi joined Inter Miami CF from Major League Soccer at the end of July, causing a surge in ticket prices and the markets the team has visited so far. His signing resulted in record-breaking jersey and merchandise sales. The number of TV and streaming viewers skyrocketed.

“I don’t want to say that we underestimated Messi’s move to MLS, but he has had an incredible impact on our league in every way,” said Camilo Durana, Apple’s executive vice president of partnerships, real estate and events.

Yet while Messi had an unprecedented impact on MLS, which was formed in the 1990s, it wasn’t enough to draw par with the other more prominent professional sports leagues in the US such as the NFL and NBA in terms of viewership and ticket prices.

“MLS needs more Messis,” said sports advisor Lee Berke, citing MLS’s history of signing stars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry at the end of their careers and attracting more fans and viewers at those moments.

In addition to competing for top players from other, more established leagues, Saudi Arabia has also joined the mix, recruiting players with offers galore 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 in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Messi Effect

The Argentine superstar joined MLS in July and celebrated a World Cup win in 2022. Messi left French team Paris Saint-Germain after reluctantly leaving FC Barcelona in 2021 – his home since signing with the team aged 13.

The 36-year-old, often dubbed the ‘GOAT’ or ‘greatest of all time’ in the sport, is nearing retirement and giving the MLS – which is still considered to be in its infancy compared to other US leagues – the much-needed boost.

Supporters of Argentine soccer player Leo Messi gather in front of Inter Miami DRV Pnk Stadium on July 11, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Marco Bello | Reuters

Since joining, Inter Miami has risen from 13th place on StubHub to become the best-selling MLS team for tickets.

Since joining Inter Miami, Messi has been the highest-grossing player of all sports on Fanatics, a digital sports platform that sells equipment and team merchandise, a company spokesman said. Since Messi joined Inter Miami, the team has sold more merchandise on Fanatics than it has in all of 2022. And he’s given a boost to MLS’ TV home on Apple’s streaming service.

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

Messi has only played in the newly expanded Leagues Cup, a tournament between the two North American leagues MLS and the Mexican Liga MX, and in a US Cup semi-final match. Inter Miami won the League Cup on August 19 and Messi has scored at least one goal in all seven games he has been a part of.

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

“These are numbers that we don’t normally see at an MLS game,” New York Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpré said of ticket sales. He added that many people who aren’t fans would come to the arena just to see Messi.

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

Ticket prices on the secondary market have skyrocketed. The average ticket price for Inter Miami on StubHub is $161, almost 64% higher than the league average. Nationwide sales of matchup tickets have also increased.

The average MLS ticket price totaled up to $98, while the average Leagues Cup ticket price totaled $152. According to StubHub, the average ticket price for matches Messi has attended is more than double at $329.

While this has been a boon for the MLS, those stats still lag behind those of the NFL and NBA.

“It’s hard to compare this to other sports. Yes, what we are seeing in MLS prices for Messi games is unprecedented. But if you look at the average ticket prices for NFL Sunday games, it’s still killer in that sense,” he told StubHub spokesman Adam Budelli.

Every time Tom Brady — who retired from the NFL earlier this year — traveled with Tampa Bay during his final seasons before retirement, StubHub saw ticket prices and demand spike in those markets as well. Or when Lebron James was chasing the NBA all-time leading scorer earlier this year.

“These average ticket prices were still three times what we’ve seen for Messi games so far this year,” said Budelli.

play catch-up

Like ticket sales, attendance at MLS games lags far behind US professional sports leagues.

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

It’s difficult to quantify viewership for this season as most MLS games are streamed exclusively through Apple’s streaming service.

“This is primarily a streaming-only package. If there were a strong linear TV presence, Messi games would find their way into the major prime-time slots and attract high viewership,” said sports adviser Berke.

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 October 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman | Getty Images

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

The partnership has only been in place for months, but according to MLS, subscribers have more than doubled since Messi’s arrival and Spanish-speaking viewership in the MLS Season Pass has surpassed 50 percent of Messi games.

An Apple representative cited Apple CEO Tim Cook’s comments during a recent earnings call and Jorge Mas, Inter Miami’s managing owner. on Xthe platform formerly known as Twitter about MLS streaming subscribers since Messi’s arrival.

“It’s clearly early days, but we’re exceeding our expectations in terms of subscriptions and the fact that Messi has moved to Inter Miami has helped us a bit,” Cook said during the earnings call in August.

MLS’s media rights deal with Apple came as the league saw an opportunity with its young fan base, which tends to stream, MLS’ Durana said. Because League Pass is also available worldwide, it allows MLS to expand its fan base beyond the borders of the US where, unlike the US, soccer is typically the dominant professional sport

MLS has signed a four-year deal to broadcast some of its games on traditional television networks, including select regular season games, the Leagues Cup and the MLS Cup.

According to Nielsen, League Cup games drew an average of 680,000 spectators, more than any all-time MLS post-season average. A total of 13.6 million people watched the League Cup games.

For the few games shown on traditional television this season, MLS has recorded a season-to-date average of 250,000 viewers.

While media companies still recognize the economics of streaming — and know how to make it profitable — esports continues to be a driver of viewership on broadcast and pay-TV. And the lucrative fees that result from media rights deals have propped up leagues and teams, often allowing them to invest more heavily in players.

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

MLS’s Durana noted the league has invested billions in its clubs, from players to stadiums, while growing its fanbase. Red Bulls’ De Grandpré said Messi validates the growth and presence of MLS on a global scale.

“Now I think more players want to join this league and that will help us build on that momentum over time,” de Grandpré said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Camilo Durana’s title as Executive Vice President of Apple Partnership, Properties and Events at MLS.

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