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Messi Returns to MLS With the Weight of the League on His Shoulders

  • The 2024 season begins Wednesday with Inter Miami hosting Real Salt Lake.
  • After a record business year, MLS looks to keep up the Messi momentum.
Victor Fraile-USA TODAY Sports

Still less than a year into the Lionel Messi era, MLS is wasting no time capitalizing on the presence of the Argentine legend as the league returns to the pitch Wednesday night with Real Salt Lake visiting Inter Miami to kick off the 2024 season.

The Messi effect was all-encompassing last year. Inter Miami of course benefited greatly, generating a league-record revenue figure of at least $120 million. Opposing clubs capitalized on Miami coming to town with huge ticket sales and creative scheduling efforts, even sometimes with Messi on the bench. And his arrival midseason led to a major spike in MLS Season Pass subscriptions for Apple TV.

Inter Miami was the worst team in MLS when Messi signed and, despite winning the first edition of the revamped Leagues Cup tournament, couldn’t rally to make the playoffs. This season, it’s by far and away the betting favorite to win the MLS Cup—FanDuel puts the team’s odds at +250, with LAFC as the nearest competitor at +700. That’s a lot of pressure on Miami and Messi, who has already struggled with injury problems early this year during the club’s preseason tour. Of course it wants to win a title, but the league, other teams, and Apple are clearly counting on the superstar, who turns 37 in June, to be the face of MLS each time Miami takes the field.

After a record year of regular-season attendance in 2023 (22,111 fans per match and almost 11 million total), MLS is touting a variety of positive metrics pointing toward the Messi momentum continuing. Miami sold out of season tickets in November, and league-wide, overall revenue from season ticket sales for its clubs is up 25% compared to this same point heading into last season. MLS says sponsors are spending more dollars (revenue is up 17% on the league level and 15% for clubs), and the official MLS online store is seeing a sales spike of 44%.

The question now is whether all those flashy numbers keep trending up throughout the season. Beyond any injury concerns, Messi will already miss some MLS matches as Argentina’s Copa América slate in June (and possibly July) conflicts with Inter Miami’s schedule.

Apple of My Eye

Apple is entering the second season of its 10-year, $2.5 billion deal for exclusive global rights to all MLS matches. That arrangement was negotiated before Messi entered the league, and very likely could be much more expensive if his move had taken place earlier.

While the company and league don’t release specific subscriber numbers for MLS Season Pass, the count was said to have surpassed 2 million in 2023, according to Sports Business Journal. But last year, T-Mobile offered its 100-million-plus customers free Season Pass subscriptions; and that won’t be the case this year, per CNET. MLS does appear to still be offering complimentary Season Pass subscriptions to eligible full-season-ticket account owners, though. It’s unclear how many nonpaying Season Pass subscribers there were in 2023, but it’s reasonable to assume they represented a decent chunk and that some who utilized the T-Mobile offering won’t buy the service this year.

While Apple certainly wants to see subscriber growth, the $250 million annual rights fee is chump change for a company with a $2.8 trillion market cap. Plus, MLS covers all production costs. No matter the subscriber count or viewership numbers for MLS Season Pass, the deal is a great way for Apple (which just launched a new sports app) to continue building out its live content portfolio. The tech giant is paying a reported $85 million annually for Friday night MLB games, is still expected to bid on NBA rights this year, and was believed to be at the finish line of a deal to acquire NFL Sunday Ticket before talks broke down and the package went to YouTube.

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