Inter Miami’s Messi Ticket Take Supercharged by MLS Rule Change

Lionel Messi has made Inter Miami games the hottest ticket in MLS. A little-discussed rule change will let the club keep more of that windfall.

This past offseason, long before Inter Miami lured the Argentinian soccer star to the U.S., MLS owners voted to change the way the league shares ticket revenue. Ever since the league’s inaugural season in 1996, MLS owners had distributed 33% of their non-suite ticket sales into a national bucket that was shared among every team. This offseason, that was lowered to 10%, according to multiple people familiar with the details.

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To offset the decrease in shared revenue, owners agreed to increase their annual capital calls. So while there are additional costs associated with the shift, people around the league agree that the biggest financial winners are the teams with the most robust ticket sales.

Enter Inter Miami, whose tickets have become a hot commodity ever since Messi announced he would be joining the team in the middle of the season. Prior to Messi’s debut, Inter Miami averaged 16,483 fans per game, 25th in the 29-team league. There are currently no tickets for sale on Inter Miami’s website for any of the team’s remaining MLS home games.

The buzz even extended to a game in which Messi didn’t play. DC United was “flooded with requests” for tickets when it hosted Inter Miami in front of a sold-out crowd on July 8, owner Jason Levien said earlier this week on the Sporticast podcast, despite the fact that Messi wasn’t yet playing games for the team.

It’s not just the number of tickets sold; it’s also the pricing. Messi’s games have been accompanied by increased ticket prices, both in Miami and when his team plays on the road. For Inter Miami, more of that home gate revenue will stay in the team’s pocket.

MLS owners voted to change the rules to reward the teams that had prioritized ticket sales and higher ticket prices, according to multiple people familiar with the talks. It was also viewed internally as additional motivation for teams that were lagging in that regard. MLS teams run a wide gamut of both attendance and venue capacity. Atlanta United FC, which shares its stadium with the NFL’s Falcons, has a league-high 45,081 fans per game. The Chicago Fire, which share a stadium with the NFL’s Bears, are lowest in the league at 15,086.

Season-long gate revenue, excluding the premium sales the clubs keep in their entirety, likely ranges from $6 million to $30 million around the league, according to Sportico’s estimates. That means under the new rule, clubs on the high end could retain an additional $6.3 million per year with the new changes. (That’s before capital call costs).

The NBA made a similar move back in 2016, when owners voted to change the share of playoff ticket revenue teams pooled to 25%, down from 40%. That’s allowed a number of teams, such as the Golden State Warriors, to dramatically increase profits from their numerous deep playoff runs, when demand is high and tickets are often 3x more expensive.

MLS owners also recently reduced another key piece of the league’s revenue sharing. Teams are now keeping more of the transfer fees that come in via player sales.

The major U.S. leagues all differ dramatically in their approach to sharing ticket sales and local revenue more broadly. NFL teams share about 40% of regular season ticket gate revenue, while leagues like the NHL and MLB have wider, more complicated formulas whereby teams share a cut of other income streams as well. NBA teams share just 6% of ticket gate in the regular season, but that goes into funding the league’s central operations, and not back to other owners.

A seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and one of the world’s highest paid athletes, Messi is by far the most impactful signing in MLS’s 27-year history. He recently signed a 2 ½-year deal with Inter Miami that is expected to be worth about $150 million in cash and team equity options. He is also in talks on side agreements with some of the league’s largest commercial partners—Apple, Adidas and Fanatics—which should allow him to share in some additional sales related to his arrival in Miami.

With assistance from Kurt Badenhausen.

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