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The Messi Effect Has Already Hit MLS

Last Updated: July 24, 2023
Lionel Messi signing with Inter Miami is a monumental momentum shift in global soccer ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

If, on the morning of June 6, you thought that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf merger was the most seismic change to sports you’d see this week, you were mistaken. Barely 24 hours later, global soccer superstar Lionel Messi stole that spotlight when he announced he was bringing his talents to South Beach — well, technically Fort Lauderdale — by joining Inter Miami CF of Major League Soccer.

Messi turned down a reported three-year, $1.6 billion — yes, billion with a B — offer from Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, while Saudi Premier League clubs are handing out millions to soccer stars like it’s pocket change. Al-Nassr paid $400 million for five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad laid out $320 million for reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. The latter is also in the final stages of landing Chelsea and France midfielder N’Golo Kante for up to $100 million.

“If it had been a matter of money, I’d have gone to Arabia or elsewhere,” Messi told Mundo Deportivo. “It seemed like a lot of money to me. The truth is that my final decision goes elsewhere and not because of money.”

@boardroom_ Lionel Messi’s move to Miami might be just the first chess piece in futbol’s North American takeover, culminating in the 2026 FIFA World Cup. #messi #intermiami #mls #lionelmessi #futbol #soccertiktok #fifa ♬ original sound – Boardroom

While Messi, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, turned down billions, his arrival at Inter Miami will be the most influential transfer in soccer history. That by itself may be worth more than anything Messi could have earned in Saudi Arabia.

Messi certainly isn’t the first big-name superstar to come to the U.S., but he is the highest-impact. While Pelé joining the New York Cosmos in 1975 certainly shined a spotlight on U.S. soccer, the sport was barely an afterthought in the American psyche; the North American Soccer League folded less than a decade later. 

MLS, professional soccer’s second go in the States, struggled to gain traction early on in a country dominated by the NFL. Games were even played in 80,000-seat NFL stadiums with football lines still visible and an average of 17,000 fans in the stands. 

But in 2007, MLS and soccer in the U.S. got the boost it needed by the arrival of David Beckham, as much a sex symbol as successful soccer star. Average MLS attendance that season went up 8.2% while Beckham’s success and stardom proved that the league and country were viable options for international players.

David Beckham’s arrival in MLS in 2007 helped put U.S. soccer on the map. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the league soon gained the unwanted moniker of a “retirement league” as aging players played out the final days of their careers. The league adapted and evolved, not only leveraging the big-name superstars to increase viewership, attendance, and revenue, but by bolstering its youth system and transfers, particularly from Central and South America.

MLS average attendance of 21,358 from 2003-18 ranked No. 8 in the world, trailing Ligue 1 in France (21,556) and Italy’s Serie A (22,967), according to the CIES Football Observatory.

With soccer steadily growing in the U.S. since and broadcasters paying billions to gobble up domestic rights to the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A, MLS sought more of a worldwide appeal with its 10-year, $2.5 billion global media rights deal with Apple, announced in June.

Today, the league is stronger than ever and Messi’s arrival provides an indefinite multiplier. MLS posted a record attendance of 10 million during the 2022 season, while the MLS Cup in November had the league’s best viewership since 1997 (2.2 million on Fox and Univision). The league has tripled its teams since 2004 and just announced its 30th franchise kicking off in San Diego in 2025 for a reported $500 million expansion fee.

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With the 2026 FIFA World Cup coming to North America in a few short years, Messi’s arrival will send soccer in the U.S. into another stratosphere. Not only does he immediately bring fame, prestige, and pedigree to the league, the 35-year-old brings excitement, eyeballs and, most importantly, money.

“The signing of Messi was a generational day for the sport of soccer in the United States and all who love its rise,” said Roger Bennett, founder of the Men in Blazers Media Network. “An enormous achievement by MLS who cried out for an identity for their league and went out and signed the biggest face in the game…He really is the planet’s most visible and beloved one-man human billboard and [him] coming to Miami will be the best thing that has happened to that city since Don Johnson discovered teal.”

Ticket prices bear that out. The average get-in price for Inter Miami CF home matches the rest of this season increased from $15 to $230 (+1,398%), while away matches went up 374%, according to ticketing technology company Logitix. Per SeatGeek, the average overall resale price for an Inter Miami home game was $31 prior to June 7. By the end of that day, it was $178.

More specifically, ticket prices for the club’s Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul of Liga MX on July 21 went up 2,074% in the 24 hours after Messi’s move was announced. Cumulative sales for Inter Miami’s matches from July through the end of the 2023 increased nearly 28 times since the news broke, according to StubHub.

“Messi will be a draw for soccer fans across the country, drawing fans to away games much like we see with big stars in the NFL and NBA,” StubHub spokesperson Adam Budelli said. “As an example, Inter Miami’s visit to LAFC at SoFi Stadium in September has jumped from LAFC’s 15th highest-selling event to No. 2 of the season, and is on track to be No. 1.”

Lionel Messi spent the last two seasons playing for PSG in France. (Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

Clubs around the league are already benefiting from the Messi Effect as his U.S. tour is expected to kick off next month. 

Charlotte FC sold more than 10,000 tickets by Wednesday afternoon and opened the upper bowl of Bank of America Stadium (74,867 capacity) for Messi’s arrival on Oct. 21. Chicago Fire FC had just 10,000 tickets sold for its home match at Soldier Field against Inter Miami on Oct. 4, but have more than doubled that total by selling another 12,000 tickets since the big news.

“We are extremely pleased to see one of the best players ever to play the game say he plans to join MLS this summer,” Chicago Fire FC spokesperson Jhamie Chin said. “It’s an exciting time for all of us within MLS and for soccer fans throughout North America. This is further proof that MLS is a league of choice for top international players, including Chicago Fire and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri.”

While the arrivals of previous international stars like Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, David Villa, Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have certainly provided a boost to the visibility and quality of MLS, their combined influence pales in comparison to Messi’s, especially given his god-like status in Latin America. Inter Miami’s Instagram followers increased from 1 million to 6 million in the first 24 hours after the news, giving the club more followers than any NFL, MLB, NHL or MLS franchise.

With the U.S. already home to the second-largest population of Spanish speakers on the planet and with an estimated one in three people expected to speak the language by 2050 (including bilingual people who also speak English), Messi’s arrival is a dream come true for U.S. Hispanics. Not to mention traveling to the U.S. compared to Europe is cheaper and more convenient for fans in Central and South America.

Fans won’t just be clamoring to see Messi in person, his presence will inspire generations to come. Think back to young basketball players wanting to “Be like Mike” or golfers trying to emulate Tiger Woods.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen youth soccer in the U.S. plateau at roughly three million players, but I expect this to skyrocket as kids everywhere see a soccer idol play on American soil,” said former USMNT striker and Trace ambassador Eddie Johnson. “We know international soccer stars have had a profound impact on soccer interest growth and can boost participation among youth players, and I’m excited to see the passion grow for the kids on my team.”

While MLS and partners Apple and Adidas combined resources to lure Messi away from Saudi billions, the Argentine will be at the forefront of the American marketing machine in regards to sponsorships, promotions, TV appearances, and more. Beckham’s underwear ads in the early 2000s won’t hold a candle to the amount of times we’ll see Messi’s likeness plastered on billboards and in commercials during his time in the U.S., especially with the World Cup three short years away.

LAFC Mexican forward Carlos Vela’s reign as boasting the top-selling jersey in the league will soon be over. Last year while playing for PSG, Messi jersey sales totaled an estimated $130 million. For perspective, LAFC led MLS in jersey sales at a combined $116 million.

Coincidentally, Beckham was instrumental in bringing the former FC Barcelona talisman to the MLS club he now owns. Beckham launched Inter Miami at a discount ($25 million) due to a clause in his Galaxy contract when he caused soccer shockwaves himself by coming to America. Kudos to MLS, U.S. soccer and Beckham for playing the long game.

As part of his deal with Inter Miami, Messi will reportedly receive a portion of new MLS Season Pass subscriptions on AppleTV+ — which “coincidentally” announced a documentary series about the iconic player — while also reportedly receiving a portion of adidas jersey sales. MLS franchise ownership may also be in his future, assuming Messi is given a package similarly structured and incentivized to Beckham’s.

The Messi Effect is already in full force and will only continue to grow as his arrival gets closer, leaving a lasting impact on the beautiful game not only in the United States, but around the world. Messi’s legacy was never in doubt. If anything, the impact he will have on growing soccer in North America only solidifies his GOAT status. Your move, Cristiano.

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