NEW YORK — After two decades competing against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Brazil, Lionel Messi will be going against the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Major League Soccer is hoping for a breakout boost to its television audience and market share after Messi joins Inter Miami next month. Following Pelé's signing with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy in 2007, Messi is expected to become the third supreme soccer evangelist in a nation where the sport has been playing catch-up for more than a century.
“Lionel Messi coming to MLS is an event that can't be replicated in any other way,” former U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “You’ve got one of the best players of all time, if not the best player of all time, coming on the heels of a World Cup win and worldwide popularity joining an American soccer league. That’s just a fantastic, fantastic opportunity for the sport in the United States.”
Messi will join MLS at age 36 while Pelé was 34 and Beckham 32. Messi remains a regular with Argentina's national team and could play in next year's Copa América and perhaps the 2026 World Cup, both in the U.S.
The Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League averaged 3,578 fans in 1974, the season before Pelé, and played in Downing Stadium along the Triborough Bridge. By his final year, 1977, they averaged more than 34,000 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Clive Toye, the Cosmos general manager who signed Pelé, remembered being met with hostility.
“Oh, Americans will never play that soccer. Oh, what a ridiculous game." he recalled being told. ”Messi is coming to a country which has millions of soccer players, where its national team draws packed crowds, its women’s national team draws packed crowds, its professional teams are at all kinds of levels — there are minor league teams tucked into villages and goodness where across the country, and kids playing soccer everywhere every day."
The NASL folded after the 1984 season and was replaced in 1996 by MLS, launched two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time. Begun with 10 teams, MLS has grown to 29 this year and San Diego is to start play in 2025.
Attendance has increased from 2.8 million and an average of 17,400 in 1996 to 10 million and an average of 21,033 last year. Total attendance is up 28% this year and the average 7%.
Roughly 22 teams are in new or substantially rebuilt soccer-specific stadiums and just six play on artificial turf.
“When you think about stadiums, infrastructure and soccer-specific stadiums, the training grounds, all of that makes it a great league,” said Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. coach at last year's World Cup. “And when you’re comparing it to other leagues that he can potentially go to when he’s doing that checklist, MLS comes out on top in a lot of categories.”
Still, soccer lags other U.S. sports. The 272 NFL regular-season games averaged 16.7 million viewers across television and digital platforms last season and the league drew 18.8 million to stadiums, an average of 69,442. MLB drew 64.6 million, an average of 26,843.
ABC and ESPN televised 34 MLS games last year that averaged 343,300 viewers, while the league averaged 443,000 on Fox, 138,000 on FS1 plus 254,000 for Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision and UniMás.
In its first year of a 10-year agreement with AppleTV+, MLS did not provide television audience figures for its games this season.
Messi, a World Cup and South American champion and a four-time Champions League winner, brings a wide appeal. He has 469 million Instagram followers, dwarfing the 22 million of the LA Galaxy's Javier Hernández, MLS's most-followed player.
But he also speaks limited English — until recent years, he was reticent to speak to media even in Spanish, but appeared far more comfortable during last year's World Cup.
Inter Miami has added 3.8 million Instagram followers to nearly 6 million. With the addition of Messi, the team could consider raising ticket prices or perhaps moving matches from 18,000-capacity DRV PNK Stadium to 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, home of the NFL's Dolphins and a venue for the 2026 World Cup. Some road games could be shifted to larger venues.
Beckham joined MLS for a $32.5 million, five-year contract that included the right to purchase an expansion team at a discounted price of $25 million — which became the Miami team that launched in 2020.
MLS owners, executives and U.S. soccer fans hope Messi’s impact will be many times more.
“I don’t think anybody would doubt that he has overdelivered on every one of those measures,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said of Beckham. “There’s arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that doesn’t know the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer, and David played a significant role in helping us make that happen.”