Will Lionel Messi reshape Major League Soccer?

June 21, 2023


The United States has a long history of recruiting aging soccer stars from other countries. Argentine Lionel Messi, considered by many worldwide to be soccer’s GOAT—greatest of all time—is set to join Inter Miami CF later this year, the team former soccer great David Beckham co-owns.

Stefan Szymanski, the Stephen J. Galetti Collegiate Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan, discusses Messi’s potential impact on MLS and soccer in the U.S.

Why is Messi coming to MLS?

The short answer is that his career is winding down, and he can no longer compete at the highest level of European soccer. MLS has focused on bringing aging stars from Europe ever since Beckham, but Messi is something more. At 35, he is the biggest name in world soccer. Beckham and MLS have been courting him for years, and he might think that he can propel the league to a level comparable to the best European leagues.

Do you think Messi will have a similar or greater influence on MLS than Pelé or Beckham?

Pelé was the first soccer star to make an impact in the U.S. He joined New York Cosmos in 1975, played for three seasons, and became a household name even among people with no interest in soccer. His fame persisted long beyond his career, but the National American Soccer League in which he played folded in 1984.

Pelé was the GOAT of his era, but Beckham was never considered in that class––great but not GOAT. But when Beckham arrived at LA Galaxy in 2007, it was a turning point in the fortunes of MLS. In the early 2000s the league almost folded, and in 2007 you could buy a franchise for a mere $10 million. A decade-and-a-half later, the league has tripled in size and an expansion franchise will set you back $500 million.

What Beckham brought was a near universal media presence, together with Victoria Beckham, whose fame was even greater back then. In the early years of emerging social media culture, the celebrity couple were influencers par excellence. Messi could rival the influence of these two, but much will depend on his fitness and enthusiasm for the game. He has always done his talking on the pitch rather than off it. Many star imports struggle to adapt to MLS, so much will depend on how it goes. But if he settles in, getting to see the great man could become the hottest ticket in U.S. sports.

Lionel Messi playing for Team Argentina during a match against Qatar at the World Cup in 2022. Image credit: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Lionel Messi playing for Team Argentina during a match against Qatar at the World Cup in 2022. Image credit: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Why does MLS need Messi?

Soccer in the U.S. is now an established sport—according to a survey last year, 27% of Americans said they were soccer fans, rising to 39% in the 18-29 age group, second only to football and basketball. Americans follow the women’s and men’s World Cup closely, LigaMX has a big following in the Hispanic community, and English Premier League (EPL) soccer is very popular. MLS has a strong fan base in some cities, but struggles to reach significant TV audiences. MLS hopes that Messi will boost TV audiences.

Where does Apple TV fit into all of this?

MLS signed a $2.5 billion, 10-year deal with Apple TV last year. That sounds like a lot, but the NFL gets about $10 billion per year, while the EPL makes more than $2.5 billion a year. The deal was a gamble by MLS that Apple TV will become a major platform––in 2022, Apple TV+ was said to have about 25 million subscribers with a 6% share of the streaming market. Its demographic skews heavily towards young men, precisely the target for sports. Apple can grow this market if it adds more sports, and if it does, then MLS could be the beneficiary. But if Apple’s strategy doesn’t work, or gets scaled back, then MLS could be stranded.

Will I be able to see him play at a stadium near me?

With 30 teams across the U.S., Messi’s Inter Miami will be coming to a stadium near you soon. The problem is that it might be expensive. At this moment, for example, you can buy a ticket for any New York Red Bulls game between now and September for around $30––except the game against Inter Miami on August 26th, where tickets start at $250 each. Part of the problem is that MLS explicitly adopted a policy of building stadiums of around 20,000 capacity so as not to have too many empty seats. Only a few teams like Atlanta FC play in larger football stadiums. And MLS is unlikely to want to relocate games.

Will MLS continue to bring in big international stars?

One added benefit of Messi for MLS is that he will probably persuade some of his friends who are also close to retirement to come and play for a year or two in MLS, which could raise the standard of play significantly. But the problem for MLS is that it has to hire these players in a global market that is very competitive. We have recently seen Saudi Arabia spend a fortune to bring two other aging stars to their league—Ronaldo and Benzema—and there is also potential competition from China and Japan. MLS will only have the resources to pay the market rate for talent if it can increase its TV audiences significantly. And its next TV deal is not until 2033.

What about the World Cup?

In 2026, the U.S. hosts the men’s World Cup together with Mexico and Canada. MLS is hoping this will bring a big boost to the league, even though few games will be played in MLS stadiums because they are too small. Expect Messi to be the marketing image of the event in the lead-up, and for MLS to cross-promote the league via its connection to the superstar.