As Messi-mania resumes, MLS foes maneuver to capitalize on his star power


The lobbying began long before Lionel Messi touched down in Miami, before his greatness ignited Major League Soccer, before ticket prices soared and windfalls swirled. MLS rode Messi-mania to a “transformational” 2023. But to capitalize in 2024, individual clubs realized, they’d need a home game against Inter Miami — and in a league with a pliable, unbalanced schedule, none were guaranteed.

So, as rumors warmed last spring, club executives began pitching themselves to the league office. Once Messi arrived, their advocacy surged. Some floated NFL stadiums; others promised splendid shows. All were bidding to be among the dozen teams who’d host Messi throughout the 2024 regular season. They nudged and coaxed league officials, more persistently than ever before.

Because they knew a date with the GOAT could boost annual revenues by double-digit percentages.

They know Messi alone will be responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars across the league by the time his contract expires at the end of 2025.

A single matchup with Miami could, for some clubs, yield more ticket income than 16 other home games combined.

But the Messi games, which begin next week, are more than one-off bonanzas. In fact, they epitomize a macro challenge that will shape the future of MLS. Each game offers access to sports fans who are MLS-agnostic. Each one is an opportunity to convert skeptics into believers — into viewers, customers, lifelong supporters.

That long view hasn’t stopped some clubs from hiking prices and hunting profit. But it has informed creative ticketing schemes, and framed how winners of the scheduling lottery approach an opportunity that might never knock again.

The Los Angeles Galaxy, for example, kept next Sunday’s opener against Miami at their 27,000-seat soccer-specific stadium, rather than moving it to a colossus like SoFi Stadium or the Rose Bowl. And for weeks, they only sold season ticket memberships and six-match packages; to secure a seat for Messi, you essentially had to pay for at least five other games as well.

The strategy was clear — and common among fellow lottery winners. The hope is that a Messi jersey-wearer on opening day becomes a Galaxy jersey-wearer by season’s end.

“There’s a lot of casual fans,” Galaxy COO Tom Braun explained, “or fans of an individual on the opposing team, that we want to transition … and turn them into Galaxy fans.”

Let the maneuvering for Messi begin

Braun was one of the many who badgered league officials throughout last summer. At MLS headquarters in Manhattan, Brad Pursel, the league’s SVP of game schedule management, fielded many of the countless emails and calls. They were “definitely” the most team- and player-specific requests he’s ever received in his 15 years in the role.

“Certainly we’ve had other great players come in the league,” Pursel told Yahoo Sports. “But there’s only one Leo Messi.”

There are also more moving parts than previously. When David Backham arrived in 2007, MLS had 13 teams and little need to carefully divvy up Galaxy games — because each club could host every other club at least once. Now, there are 29 teams, 493 games, and no strict formula to dictate who plays whom.

So there is room for subjectivity — and “obvious pressure, for obvious reasons,” Pursel said. Of Miami’s 34 games, 28 would be home-and-homes within the Eastern Conference; the other six would be the league’s choice. Only three of the 14 Western Conference teams could realistically host Miami in 2024. Most or all 14 angled for the privilege.

The league, in response, promised “fairness” and “rationale.” Three of the 14 — the Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake — had never played Inter Miami since its 2020 inception. Three others — the LA Galaxy, Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City — had never faced Miami at home.

So Pursel and league officials narrowed 14 choices down to those six.

They ultimately chose the Galaxy for a glamorous opener; Kansas City, after discussions about the availability of Arrowhead Stadium, which will undergo construction in the spring of 2025; and the Whitecaps, who pitched their 50th anniversary and stadium, BC Place, which can expand capacity to 54,500.

They snubbed RSL, Colorado and Minnesota. When asked why, Pursel noted that the league was “thinking of what would make sense in 2024, and then what would make sense in 2025.” They explained their logic to the lottery losers. But no 2025 decisions nor promises have been made. (In addition to those three, the Portland Timbers, Austin FC and expansion team San Diego FC appear to be candidates to host Miami next season.)

There were also tricky decisions in the Eastern Conference. All 14 foes will get Miami at home, but Messi could miss six or more games while on international duty with Argentina. So the league hand-picked those games, too. The teams slated to host Miami during international breaks or Copa América are the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, Nashville SC, Charlotte FC and FC Cincinnati — the five Eastern Conference clubs whose fans saw Messi live in 2023.

The rest received their gifts, the schedule, in mid-December, three days before the public. And they activated intricate plans to maximize the most precious commercial prize in MLS history.

A fan wears

The challenge for MLS franchises across the country is to turn Messi fans into fans of their team, too. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Planning for Messi’s arrival

Inside MLS front offices throughout the fall, executives met to determine what, exactly, maximization meant. In New England, Revolution president Brian Bilello shared his interpretation. “Look, the goal here should be, how do we grow our fan base by having this match — not how we maximize revenue on this event,” Bilello said. “That’s gotta be the most critical component.”

In Kansas City, that meant moving to Arrowhead, from the cozy confines of 18,467-seat Children’s Mercy Park to the 76,416-capacity home of the Chiefs.

The NFL venue, with tickets currently priced from $150 to above $500, will allow Sporting KC to smash club records — and perhaps even touch the single-game revenue record league-wide, reportedly around $10 million.

But it also brings more fans through the door. Some will be Sporting regulars; others will be first-timers, and potential converts. “They’re coming to see Miami and their star power, and hopefully Messi,” Sporting CEO Jake Reid told Yahoo Sports. “Our thought is: How do we ensure that they remain soccer fans, and remain fans of Sporting Kansas City, once Miami leaves town?”

The answer, for some clubs, is fan fests and novel activations on matchday. “We have to deliver upon the experience,” Braun, the Galaxy chief, said.

They can also re-target fans who, by buying a Messi ticket, have entered their customer databases. But targeting fans on the front end is even more effective. The Galaxy, Revs and Whitecaps, plus Orlando, Montreal, Toronto and others, have restricted access to Miami-only tickets, and funneled fans toward multi-match packs. At D.C. United, even with Miami’s visit a month away on March 16, the only standard route to seats is a full or partial season-ticket plan.

In Vancouver, single tickets for Miami were made available; but pay $22 extra, and you can get the same seat for Miami, plus the Whitecaps’ home opener, the golden anniversary celebration, and the LAFC playoff rematch as well. Season tickets, for all 19-plus games, are priced just 20-45% higher than Miami-only tickets — and cheaper than some available on the resale market. Such is the effort to retain loyal fans and recruit new ones who’ll stick around.

Elsewhere, a glimpse of the GOAT will cost six, eight or even 10 times more than a standard MLS ticket. In Columbus, the current get-in price is $382; for a game against Orlando two weeks earlier, it’s $45. In LA, limited single-game tickets reportedly sold out in minutes last month; and the few remaining “VIP” club seats cost $1,625 or $2,150.

But most hopeful Messi hosts have held season-ticket prices in check. All have capitalized. At least three Eastern Conference clubs, including Columbus and Montreal, sold out season memberships for the first time in their histories. The Red Bulls broke a single-week club record when they first went to market over the summer. Others, including Kansas City, saw sizable spikes when they announced their schedules and Miami was on it.

In New England, Bilello said, season-ticket sales are up 40%; and while a chunk of that year-over-year increase is unrelated to Miami, Messi clearly pushed potential buyers over the edge. He’ll be responsible for record crowds and revenues, just as he was in Chicago last fall — even if and when he doesn’t play.

Fans in Hong Kong were livid when Lionel Messi did not play in an exhibition match there in February. (AP Foto/Louise Delmotte)

Fans in Hong Kong were livid when Lionel Messi did not play in an exhibition match there in February. (AP Foto/Louise Delmotte)

The million-dollar dilemma: Will Messi play?

Messi is, above all, a human. And humans need rest. “We are not machines or robots,” his friend and teammate, Sergio Busquets, reminded fans last year. “We would like to play every game, every minute, not have injuries, not have fatigue. But it’s one thing we can’t control.” And it’s the prickly problem underlying MLS’s best-laid plans.

Messi’s legs faltered last September. In 2024, he could travel 100,000 miles and labor through more than 60 games. “I’m a little tired from all this travel,” he admitted last week — before his season even officially began.

In fact, he’d already picked up a preseason injury. He sat out one game in Hong Kong. His absence sparked boos and a full-blown international incident. Chinese state-run media baselessly accused him of a deliberate, politically motivated snub. Fans fumed.

MLS clubs surely noted the furor. But all along, they’ve hedged to prevent a replica back home. Whereas Hong Kong organizers explicitly marketed Messi, most MLS ticket promos have been more subtle. They are selling showdowns with Inter Miami; Messi is implied, but never guaranteed. His face is sometimes featured in promotional graphics — just as Lucho Acosta’s or Hany Mukhtar’s would be.

There is broad understanding that Messi won’t play 34 regular-season games, that a $500 ticket might yield disappointment. There is also confidence within clubs that even disappointed hosts can rise to their Messi-era challenge. Prices and demand for Inter Miami games during Copa América — games that Messi will miss — are still significantly higher than league averages. Fans will still show up, as they did when Inter Miami traveled to Chicago last October and Messi stayed home.

Around 60,000 people filled Soldier Field that night. They left with a fun Fire win and a $50 or $250 credit toward tickets for the following season. Some will surely return in 2024.

That, in a nutshell, is the long-term expression of The Messi Effect.

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