Discover more from Huddle Up
Lionel Messi's Billion-Dollar Impact On US Soccer
Newsletter Update: I am moving this weekend, so there won’t be any newsletters next week. I’ll be back in action on August 7th, and you can continue receiving sports business content via my podcast on Apple or Spotify in the meantime.
Today At A Glance:
Soccer in the United States is having a moment right now, with Lionel Messi making his MLS debut and several of the world’s biggest clubs playing friendlies nationwide. But is this a sign of bigger things to come for the world’s most popular sport? Or will it simply fizzle out once the NFL season starts back up next month? Today’s newsletter will break down exactly where MLS is at and where they need to go.
This Newsletter is Sponsored By ButcherBox!
I’ve been ordering from ButcherBox for a few years now, and it’s the single best solution I’ve found to save time while guaranteeing the quality of your food.
ButcherBox delivers 100% grass-fed grass-finished beef, free-range, organic chicken, humanely raised pork, and wild-caught seafood directly to your doorstep. Yes, it’s literally that easy — and it tastes incredible!
So ditch the butcher lines today and guarantee the freshness of your meat with ButcherBox.
And here’s the best part: If you sign up today, ButcherBox is offering all Huddle Up readers 2 lbs of ground beef for FREE every time they order over the next year. So sign up using the link below, and everyone in your household will thank you later.
It felt like a movie when Lionel Messi made his Inter Miami CF debut last week.
LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian, and David Beckham, who have a combined Instagram following of 618 million, were all in attendance. And legendary screenwriters Spike Lee and Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have imagined a better ending.
That’s because Lionel Messi drew a foul in the game's final seconds. The crowd stood on its feet and chanted “Messi! Messi!,” aware regulation was set to end with the world’s greatest player taking a free kick from one of field’s the most dangerous spots.
And the moment didn’t disappoint. Lionel Messi approached the ball and swung his illustrious left foot. The free kick was from 24.2 yards out and had an expected goal (xG) of just 0.08. But none of that mattered because Messi did what he always does: Deliver.
The shot found the upper left corner of the net, and the crowd went wild. Fireworks erupted over the stadium, and Apple TV even caught David Beckham shedding a tear.
It was an iconic moment for Lionel Messi and Major League Soccer. The video currently has 55 million views and 385,000 favorites on Twitter, marking the fourth time MLS has had a tweet garner 100,000+ favorites since Messi arrived.
And it wasn’t just domestic interest, either. Google Trends data indicates global interest in Major League Soccer has never been higher than it is right now.
Lionel Messi then delivered again in his second MLS match, scoring two goals and assisting another to beat Atlanta United 4-0. And the results are compounding.
For example, MLS Season Pass, which is Apple TV’s $50/year subscription service to all MLS matches, has seen an explosion in interest since Messi’s arrival this month.
And Inter Miami CF has gained 11 million Instagram followers since Messi’s signing — Inter Miami is now the 4th most-followed US sports team on Instagram — and they now have more Instagram followers than the other 28 MLS clubs combined.
Most Followed US Sports Teams (Instagram)
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 31 million
Los Angeles Lakers (NBA): 23 million
Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA): 16 million
Inter Miami CF (MLS): 12 million
Still, gaining social media followers off the back of a 36-year-old intentional superstar that will retire in a few years doesn’t guarantee long-term success. So is Messi’s move to Major League Soccer a flash in the pan? Or could it be something much bigger?
In case you haven’t noticed, soccer is having a moment in the United States right now.
There was Lionel Messi’s signing and MLS debut, of course. But several of the world’s most famous clubs are currently hosting friendlies throughout the United States.
For example, 50,596 people showed up in North Carolina to watch Wrexham AFC take on Chelsea. Over 65,000 people saw a seven-goal Premier League Summer Series match as Chelsea beat 10-man Brighton 4-3 in Philadelphia. NRG Stadium had 67,801 fans in Houston for Barcelona’s match against Real Madrid. The Rose Bowl was packed with 70,814 fans for Real Madrid’s match against AC Milan. And Arsenal vs. Manchester United set a new soccer attendance record with 82,262 fans at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey— a number that is significantly higher than the 2022 average home attendance for the NFL’s New York Jets (78,009) and New York Giants (76,474).
And it’s not just these global football clubs putting up big numbers, either.
Take El Tráfico, for instance. The MLS rivalry between Los Angeles Football Club and the LA Galaxy set an MLS attendance record in July with 82,110 fans at the Rose Bowl.
Still, it feels like soccer has been “having its moment” in the United States for decades.
In 1975, Pelé shocked the world when he signed a three-year, $7 million deal with the New York Cosmos of the NASL. A record 10 million people watched his debut on CBS, and the Cosmos moved their games from a small stadium on Randall’s Island to Giants Stadium, eventually setting a North American attendance record of 77,691.
“Today, if you are all over the world … every place in the world you go, they say ‘Pelé, when are the New York Cosmos coming back?’ Sometimes I get a little upset. I played 25 years in Santos, and nobody asks me,’’ Pelé said in 2013. “But I’m proud of that because we made football — soccer — in the U.S. well-known.”
But that was nearly 50 years ago, and the US still has a long way to go.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is the dominant domestic league today. And the organization is well-capitalized, armed with billionaire owners, a $2.5 billion broadcasting deal with Apple, and the average team valuation reaching $582 million.
But Major League Soccer still isn’t one of the world’s Top 15 leagues from a talent perspective.
And 36-year-old Lionel Messi won’t be able to change that by himself, especially considering many other international talents have already made their way to the US, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, David Villa, and others.
Instead, Major League Soccer must expand on its grassroots initiatives, keeping talented American players from leaving for bigger clubs. They must face more international competition, even if they get blown out. They need to build local fanbases, capitalizing on the increased football fandom we’ve seen throughout the youth. And they must also strip down some of the roster restriction rules, enabling owners that actively want to spend more money to do just that — spend more money.
There will always be challenges, of course. Many international football fans don’t like the MLS schedule. And the lack of promotion-relegation in the United States system almost takes the soul out of the sport.
But football is the world’s biggest sport, with over 3.5 billion fans worldwide.
Total Event Viewership (2022-23)
NFL Super Bowl: 115 million
FIFA World Cup Final: 1.5 billion
And the United States is the world’s most lucrative sports market — the NFL brings in more annual revenue ($20 billion) than the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 combined ($19 billion), despite having significant less total fans.
So my guess is that economic incentives eventually take over. And with more fans falling in love with the sport due to Lionel Messi, Copa América in 2024, and the World Cup in 2026, club valuations will continue to rise. And in turn, MLS teams will continue to recruit better and better talent over the coming years due to higher wages.
So while it’s true that MLS may never be a top 5 league globally, the truth is that they don’t need to be a top 5 league globally to be considered a success.
If you enjoyed this breakdown, please consider sharing it with your friends!
I hope everyone has a great day. We’ll talk next week.
Interested in advertising with Huddle Up? Email me.
Your feedback helps me improve Huddle Up. How did you like today’s post?
Huddle Up is a 3x weekly newsletter that breaks down the business and money behind sports. If you are not already a subscriber, sign up and join 100,000+ others who receive it directly in their inbox each week.