NEW YORK (AP) – After two decades of competing against Real Madrid, Manchester United or the Brazil national team, Lionel Messi will now face the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA.
MLS hopes the Argentine star’s arrival at Inter Miami next month will boost the league’s television viewership and market share.
Pele signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Now, Messi is expected to become the ultimate evangelist of football in a country where the sport has lagged behind others for more than a century.
Sunil Gulati, former president of the American Soccer Federation, said, “Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS is an event that cannot be reproduced any other way.” “After winning the World Cup and enjoying global popularity in the United States Football League, you have one of the best soccer players of all time, if not the best. It’s a really great opportunity for the sport in America.”
Messi would join MLS at the age of 36, while Pele was 34 and Beckham was 32. Messi is still the banner of the Argentina team and it is believed that he will play next year’s Copa America and perhaps the 2026 World Cup, both of which are played in the US. ,
In 1974, the season before Pele’s arrival, the Cosmos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) averaged 3,578 spectators per game. They played at Downing Stadium on an island in Manhattan. In its senior year, 1977, the club drew over 34,000 people to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Clive Toye, the general manager of the Cosmos who signed Pelé, recalled the animosity that was generated by the acquisition.
“What if Americans never play football. It’s a ridiculous sport”, he recalled. “Messi comes to a country where there are millions of footballers, where their national team fills stadiums, their women’s team fills stadiums, They have professional clubs at every level – there are youth teams in every corner of the country, and you have kids. Playing football every day.
The NASL disappeared after the 1984 season and was replaced by the MLS in 1996, two years after the United States hosted the World Cup for the first time. After starting with 10 teams, MLS has expanded to 29 this year, with San Diego debuting in 2025.
Its voter turnout increased from an average of 2.8 million and 17,400 in 1996 to an average of 10 million and 21,033 the previous year. The influx of fans this season has increased by 28% with an average of 7% this year.
Its twenty-two teams play in new stadiums exclusively for soccer. Only six play on artificial courts.
Greg Berhalter, the coach who led the United States to last year’s World Cup, said, “When you take into account the infrastructure for soccer and the stadiums, the training grounds, well, it all makes it outstanding.” ” “When you compare it to other leagues he might have gone to when he made up his mind, MLS ranks higher in a lot of categories.”
But soccer remains in the shadow of other sports in the United States. The NFL’s 272 games last season averaged 16.7 million viewers across television and digital platforms, and the league drew 18.8 million people to stadiums, an average of 69,442. MLB drew 64.6 million, an average of 26,843.
ABC and ESPN broadcast 34 MLS games last year, averaging 343,300 viewers, while the league averaged 443,000 on Fox and 138,000 on FS1. Spanish-language broadcasts from Univision and UniMás received an average of 254,000.
In the first year of a decade-long deal with AppleTV+, MLS hasn’t provided viewership figures for its games this season.
Messi, who has recently been awarded as the World Cup champion, is recognized all over the planet. It has 469 million Instagram followers, 22 million more than Mexican Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, the most followed Galaxy striker in the league.
But he is not fluent in English. And he’s also not one to give many interviews in Spanish, although he was more talkative during the World Cup in Qatar.
Inter Miami has added 3.8 million followers on Instagram to reach almost 6 million.
With the arrival of Messi, the team may increase the ticket price and maybe even change the venue. Instead of playing at the 18,000-capacity DRV PNK Stadium, do it at the 65,000-capacity Hard Rock at Miami Gardens, which is home to the NFL’s Dolphins and the venue for the 2026 World Cup. Some of their away games may be moved to a larger stadium.
Beckham entered MLS on a five-year, $32.5 million contract, a deal that included an option to acquire an expansion team at a $25 million discount. That was the Miami franchise that started in 2020.
MLS owners, officials and American fans are convinced that Messi’s impact will be immense.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said of Beckham, “I don’t think anybody doubts that he has exceeded expectations in everything.” “There isn’t a soccer fan on this planet who doesn’t know about the LA Galaxy and MLS, and David has been instrumental in making that happen.”