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Messi Mania Propelling the In-Season Tournament Model In US Soccer

  • Inter Miami’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal win drove record numbers for CBS Sports.
  • Messi “was like rocket fuel” for the nascent Leagues Cup.
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi holds two trophies during the trophy ceremony for the Leagues Cup Championship match at GEODIS Park in Nashville.
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Crowning its first winner in 1914, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the United States’ oldest ongoing soccer competition. Teams from across the American soccer hierarchy compete in one enormous FA Cup-style bracket.

CBS Sports owns the media rights to the USOC, streaming it on Paramount+, Paramount-owned Pluto TV, and its FAST channel Golazo Network.

“We thought that there was an opportunity to advance these amazing storylines,” CBS Sports EVP of digital Jeff Gerttula tells Front Office Sports. “Having the David vs. Goliath stories with MLS teams playing USL teams playing lower-level teams, we just saw so many rich stories there that were built on real grassroots U.S. soccer local teams. It was very real.”

Yet despite the competition’s age and obvious appeal to American audiences in a knockout-style competition, the U.S. Open Cup never quite caught on.

Before CBS Sports scooped up the rights for the whole tournament, ESPN held them from 2019 through 2022, choosing to only show matches on ESPN+. Before that, an assortment of networks only broadcast the final match of the competition. ESPN declined comment for this story.

The indifference all changed when Lionel Messi stepped onto the pitch for Inter Miami’s semifinal match against FC Cincinnati last week.

Miami’s dramatic penalty-kicks victory drew record numbers for CBS Sports: Pluto TV attracted both its most-ever new users for a single telecast and its most-watched live event ever, while Golazo Network also recorded its largest day ever. It was the sixth-most-streamed match ever on Paramount+ and CBS Sports Digital Platforms.

One month prior, Leagues Cup began its first full tournament featuring all 47 teams from MLS and Mexico’s LigaMX this year. Messi made his highly anticipated North American debut in the competition and immediately put his stamp on it, scoring a tournament-high 10 goals to deliver Inter Miami its first trophy in club history.

“Lionel Messi was like rocket fuel for Leagues Cup,” MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche tells FOS. “It went from a tournament that people were curious about to a global event.”

While MLS broadcast partner Apple is tight-lipped with statistics, the early returns seem to be positive: Apple CEO Tim Cook said on the company’s Q3 earnings call that it was “beating our expectations in terms of subscribers,” while Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas claimed that MLS Season Pass subscribers had more than doubled since the announcement of Messi’s arrival.

The U.S. Open Cup Final on September 27 against Houston Dynamo FC will be Messi and Inter Miami’s final cup game of the season. Another Messi-led win could be enough to finally get the American soccer cup concept off the ground after over 100 years.

“This kind of cup model is very different than the typical American model, so U.S. audiences are just not that familiar with it,” says Greenfly CEO Daniel Kirschner, whose company does content collection for MLS teams. “The timing really coalesced very well to draw this kind of attention and also to enable [Messi] to win something.”

Kirschner believes the cup model is “on the rise” in the U.S. with at least one major sports league already getting in on the action.

In July, the NBA announced the In-Season Tournament, which will run for just over a month early in the season. The WNBA has had its own cup tournament, the Commissioner’s Cup, since 2021.

Just as the NBA has long-term plans for the IST, so too does MLS with Leagues Cup.

“As remarkable as the four weeks of Leagues Cup were, it’s really only the beginning,” says Courtemanche. “We think it’s going to be a great tradition.”

Messi’s contract reportedly runs through 2025 and includes incentives to drive subscribers to MLS Season Pass, so the American cups can ride the Messi wave for at least two more seasons — and they’ll be hoping that his presence will have exposed enough fans to keep them watching once he’s gone.

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