Lionel Messi’s presence is already changing soccer in the United States. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
MLS is one of the youngest soccer leagues in the world, but its newest star thinks it can become one of the biggest.
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, who’s taken MLS by storm after he left French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain in June, said he believes MLS can become as popular as other European leagues like the English Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1.
“I think it has every opportunity to do so,” Messi told ESPN’s Luis Miguel Echegaray Friday. “That growth depends a lot on the league. It’s an ideal moment to grow. There are important competitions upcoming that will be played in this country [like the 2024 Copa America and the 2026 FIFA World Cup].”
It’s true that American interest in soccer is growing. Look no further than the United States Women’s National Team, who won back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019 before a shocking Round of 16 exit in 2023. The team’s group stage match with the Netherlands also drew a record-high 6.429 million viewers for Fox.
Television and in-person viewership among domestic clubs is gaining momentum, too. Matches on ESPN and ABC were up 16% from 2021-2022, and although information about streaming numbers on Apple TV+ aren’t publicly available, Messi’s July 21 debut was the most-watched match in MLS Season Pass’ short history and, according to Apple, subscriptions have risen dramatically.
On the ground, MLS broke its attendance record in July when more than 82,000 fans watched the annual “El Tráfico” match between LA Galaxy and LAFC. In March, the NWSL broke its opening weekend attendance record as well.
“It’s time for the league to make that leap and finish growing, finish looking for what it’s been seeking for a while,” Messi added. “Everything is in place here to witness top-level football because of the country, the structure, a bunch of things.”
Messi’s presence is also a major reason for this growth. His decision to join MLS over more lucrative offers in Saudi Arabia or Europe sparked a ticket-buying bonanza and his talent has already improved the product on the field. That should, in theory, trickle down to the rest of the league and the sport across the U.S.
But it will take more than one man for MLS to catch the European leagues in terms of popularity. The English Premier League averaged 527,000 viewers on NBC platforms in the United States compared with the 343,000 average viewers on ABC and ESPN in 2022. That’s a gap that will take some time to fill, but Messi’s play could quicken the pace.