The MLS Cup playoffs began with two games to begin on Saturday after the New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC were eliminated in the wild-card playoffs on Wednesday. Eighteen of the league’s 29 teams made it into the league — but not the league’s biggest star.
Lionel Messi was able to help Inter Miami win the League Cup early, but he arrived too late to save the team that had the worst record in the league when he signed. However, Messi’s arrival came nearly five months into what has been an exciting and historic season for American football.
In February, MLS began a 10-year, $2.5 billion exclusive media rights deal with Apple, then broke its single-season attendance record with 22,111 fans per game. The total attendance for the season also set a new record with 10,900,804 fans.
“We’ve worked hard with our clubs on what it’s like in the stadiums — the kinds of traditions that they see, what someone lives with from start to finish,” MLS vice president Camilo Duranatold told Front Office Sports.
Attendees were encouraged by the addition of St. Louis City FC – which sold out all 17 home games at its new 22,000-seat stadium. St. Louis secured the Western Conference’s top seed while becoming the first expansion team to win the MLS Cup since the Chicago Fire in 1998.
With Messi on the chin, some pundits wondered if his success was bad for the growth of MLS. But even if the league wants to prove that its product is bigger than the Argentine football legend in the next six weeks, the result cannot be overstated.
The Changing MLS Landscape
Unsurprisingly, Messi helped Inter Miami to sell out all the remaining home games, saw a huge increase in followers – 11.7 million along with almost 10 million on Instagram alone – and the team expects an increase in income next year. But other clubs also felt the impact of Messi.
After Inter Miami’s exit from the playoffs, Messi prepared for the club’s final game at Charlotte FC, which drew 66,000 fans – almost double the club’s previous record to date and the league’s current record.
Miami had 10 away games after Messi signed, but he didn’t play in all of them. Some of his opponents, such as the New York Red Bulls, have seen their money raised at the gate after preparing for a game that could take place before Messi joins the league.
Others, such as Atlanta United, attracted huge crowds despite Messi not being able to play due to injury. Atlanta had over 74,000 in attendance for its Miami game – and they still feel like they made the most of it. “Many of the people who came to the game, this was their first time to attend a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” the club’s vice president of business Georgia O’Donoghue told FOS.
Making More of Messi
Now, the goal is to use Messi’s form to create long-term fans.
“They give attention to the stars we already have and we can build ourselves,” O’Donoghue said. And this approach extends throughout the league.
Next year, Messi’s global presence and Inter Miami’s travels are already on the minds of MLS decision makers. “We’re taking a close look at how we’re planning Miami on the radio to make sure we’re putting Miami in a position where it can benefit and move viewers to other games,” said Durana, who oversees Apple’s product partnership. , and events.
Inter Miami will visit 17 distant markets. Others, such as the Red Bulls, plan to explore moving their Miami games from their home stadium to the nearby MetLife Stadium to increase attendance.
‘Apple’s Great Success’
While Messi is known to have increased Apple’s MLS Season Pass subscription numbers, the ad is said to have been a hit before his arrival. “We’re doing better than we say,” Apple vice president Eddy Cue said in June before Messi decided to join MLS.
Enrollment numbers are closely guarded, but some trends emerged throughout the season. At the beginning of the year, a report said that the number of subscribers was about a million. Another report found that Messi’s arrival drove nearly 300,000 subscribers in July.
Beyond Messi’s growth, MLS is the first major US league to complete a full season of major league games in the next decade. “Everyone agrees that we are still building the plane as we fly,” FC Cincinnati CEO Jeff Berding told FOS. “And this has been a learning year.”
O’Donoghue said Apple did better than expected. “It was a big win for Apple,” media analyst Jim Williams told FOS, citing a major improvement in production.
A major change from previous seasons was the introduction of Wednesday and Saturday evening games – which O’Donoghue felt was good for viewers – as opposed to the many broadcast windows used before Apple. Williams, who is the CEO of LJC Media, disagrees. “If they’re expanding the league, why don’t you want to play another game in the afternoon and use the window to make it all day on Saturday?”
Despite the consistency in the regular season – good or bad – the first line of the playoffs departs from the series of Wednesday / Saturday and consists of 12 games on different days of the week going to the head and broadcast of the NFL.
But overall, viewers have been watching matches longer on Apple, according to MLS, but viewership figures are not publicly available. “It’s been a change for our fans,” added Berding, who says Cincinnati — the Western Conference’s top seed — hasn’t seen a drop in viewership since airing its games on free-to-air television.
Changes to the way Apple delivers MLS content are expected next season, and the league will retain its partnership with Fox Sports in the US and others in Canada to broadcast select games.
More Beyond Messi
In 2024, a change in the format of the League Cup could be on the way, MLS told FOS, as the combined competition with Mexico’s Liga MX hits its second year.
In the meantime, MLS will try to improve on the major international competitions being played in the US starting next summer with the Copa America. In 2025, the FIFA Club World Cup will be a precursor to the long-awaited 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America.
In 2025, San Diego FC will become the 30th team in the league, paying an additional $500 million. The competition may seem to be intensifying with markets like Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Phoenix potentially interested in acquiring clubs.
“When you have the best player of all time make Major League Soccer the league of choice, I think that’s a real testament to where MLS is and where it’s going in the years to come,” Commissioner Don Garber said earlier this year.
The combined valuation of MLS clubs is $15 billion, per Garber. “The league has meaning,” he added. With a long-standing partnership and North America the capital of world football for this decade, there has never been a better time to prove it.