After two decades competing against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Brazil, Lionel Messi will be going against the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is hoping for a breakout boost to its television audience and market share after Messi joins Inter Miami next month. Following Pele’s signing with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy in 2007, Messi is expected to become the third supreme football evangelist in a nation where the sport has been playing catch-up for more than a century.
“Lionel Messi coming to MLS is an event that can’t be replicated in any other way,” former US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “You’ve got one of the best players of all time, if not the best player of all time, coming on the heels of a World Cup win and worldwide popularity joining an American soccer league. That’s just a fantastic, fantastic opportunity for the sport in the United States.”
Messi will join MLS at age 36 while Pele was 34 and Beckham 32. Messi remains a regular with Argentina’s national team and could play in next year’s Copa America and perhaps the 2026 World Cup, both in the US.
The Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League averaged 3,578 fans in 1974, the season before Pele, and played in Downing Stadium along the Triborough Bridge. By his final year, 1977, they averaged more than 34,000 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The NASL folded after the 1984 season and was replaced in 1996 by MLS, launched two years after the US hosted the World Cup for the first time. Begun with 10 teams, MLS has grown to 29 this year. Roughly 22 teams are in new or substantially rebuilt football-specific stadiums and just six play on artificial turf.
Still, football lags other US sports. The 272 NFL regular-season games averaged 16.7 million viewers across television and digital platforms last season and the league drew 18.8 million to stadiums, an average of 69,442. MLB drew 64.6 million, an average of 26,843.
ABC and ESPN televised 34 MLS games last year that averaged 343,300 viewers, while the league averaged 443,000 on Fox, 138,000 on FS1 plus 254,000 for Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision and UniMas. In its first year of a 10-year agreement with AppleTV+, MLS did not provide television audience figures for its games this season.