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Lionel Messi strengthens MLS, but the football league needs more

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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 American men’s professional soccer league and he has effects never seen before.

Messi joined Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF at the end of July, triggering a hike in ticket prices and markets visited so far by the team. His signing led to record jersey and merchandise sales. TV and streaming viewership has increased.

“I don’t want to say that we underestimated Messi’s arrival in MLS, but it has had an incredible impact on our league in every way,” said Camilo Durana, executive vice president of club services and of MLS fan development.

Yet even though Messi had an unprecedented effect on the MLS, which was founded in the 1990s, it was not enough to catch up with the other larger professional sports leagues in the United States, such as the NFL and the NBA, in terms of ratings and ticket prices.

“MLS needs more Messi,” said sports consultant Lee Berke, pointing to MLS’s habit of bringing in stars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry in the twilight of their careers and attracting more of fans and viewers in those moments.

As well as competition from other more established leagues for top players, Saudi Arabia has also joined the group in signing players with offers from its Public Investment Fund, including Messi. Brazilian soccer star Neymar recently accepted an offer, following soccer legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, with deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Messi effect

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

Mark Bello | Reuters

Since joining, Inter Miami have become the top-selling MLS team for tickets in 13th place on StubHub.

Since joining Inter Miami, Messi has been the top-selling player in all sports on Fanatics, a digital sports platform that sells team gear and merchandise, a company spokesperson has said. . Since Messi joined Inter Miami, the team has sold more merchandise than in all of 2022 on Fanatics. And it gave a boost to MLS’ TV house, Apple TV+.

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

So far, Messi has only played in the newly expanded Leagues Cup, a tournament between the two North American MLS leagues and Mexico’s Liga MX, and one United States Cup semi-final match. Inter Miami won the League Cup on August 19 and Messi has scored at least one goal in the seven games he has played.

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

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

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

Secondary market ticket prices soared. The average ticket price for Inter Miami on StubHub is $161, nearly 64% above the league average. Ticket sales for games nationwide are also on the rise.

The overall average ticket price for MLS can be as high as $98, while the average ticket price for the League Cup was $152. For games Messi has played in, the average ticket price is more than double that of $329, according to StubHub.

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

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

Every time Tom Brady – who retired from the NFL earlier this year – was on the road in his final seasons with Tampa Bay before retiring, StubHub also saw ticket prices and demand rise. in these markets. Or when Lebron James was chasing the NBA’s all-time record earlier this year.

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

Play catch-up

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waves to the crowd as he leaves the field after defeating the New England Patriots in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman | Getty Images

Apple and MLS signed a 10-year deal that began this season to broadcast matches. Matches can be accessed through the MLS Season Pass, an add-on to the Apple TV+ streaming service, which costs $6.99 per month. The MLS Season Pass costs $12.99 on top of Apple TV+ and $14.99 on its own.

The partnership is only a few months old, but MLS says subscriber numbers have more than doubled since Messi’s arrival and Spanish-language viewership on the MLS Season Pass has exceeded 50% for matches. of Messi.

A Apple The rep pointed to comments made by Apple CEO Tim Cook during a recent earnings call and by Inter Miami owner and manager Jorge Mas. on Xthe platform formerly known as Twitter, regarding MLS streaming subscribers since Messi’s arrival.

“It’s definitely the beginning, but we exceeded our expectations in terms of subscribers, and the fact that Messi went to Inter Miami helped us a bit,” Cook said on the earnings conference call. of August.

MLS’ media rights deal with Apple TV+ came as the league saw an opportunity with its young fanbase, which tends to lean towards streaming, MLS’s Durana said. Since the League Pass is also available worldwide, it allows MLS to expand its fanbase beyond US borders, where football is usually the dominant professional sport unlike the US.

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

League Cup matches averaged 680,000 viewers, more than all MLS post-season averages, according to Nielsen. A total of 13.6 million people watched the League Cup matches.

For the few games aired on traditional television this season, MLS has averaged 250,000 viewers to date.

While media companies are still mulling over the economics of streaming — and ways to make it profitable — sports remain a ratings driver on broadcast and pay-TV channels. And the lucrative fees from media rights deals have bolstered leagues and teams, often allowing them to invest more in players.

“You have to invest in more players. To do that, the economic situation in the league has to change,” Berke added. “And it’s not easy when other leagues, and now the Saudis, are also investing money on top players.”

MLS’s Durana noted that the league has spent billions investing in its clubs, from players to stadiums, as it grows its audience. Red Bulls’ De Grandpre says Messi validates MLS’s growth and presence globally.

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



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