Lionel Messi’s Impact on the Leagues Cup

The Argentine superstar was a big reason for the success of the Leagues Cup, but diving deeper, MLS is cashing in on the vast soccer audience of the United States.

Lionel Messi and Inter Miami brought a Hollywood-esque story to the 2023 Leagues Cup, which would have otherwise been a head scratching and underwhelming mid-summer tournament between teams from Liga MX and MLS.

When the premise of the revamped Leagues Cup was announced, it was met with a mixed reaction. How would MLS, who is basically the sole organizer of the tournament, be able to generate a buzz for a competition lodged in the middle of its season and in the dog days of summer?

Enter Inter Miami, yes, the last-place, barely standing team who from one night to the next transformed into a world recognized club thanks to the signing of Messi and his heroics for the team along the way. Messi was without question the Leagues Cup’s biggest star, netting 10 goals in 7 matches, many of them highlight reel finishes that have only gone to elevate the league and the tournament as a whole.

Within 24 hours of Messi’s first goal against Cruz Azul, the Argentine’s free kick was seen by over 50 million viewers on Twitter X. It was a clear and nearly immediate sign that he was here to elevate the league at every turn. And why not? He is the greatest soccer player of all time. A no brainer from a marketing perspective.

At times the Leagues Cup saw its share of criticism, most notably for its merciless strain on Mexican teams forced to travel all over the country and the questionable defending put on display by nearly every participating team — especially those lining up against Messi.

The tournament went along and, in the process, helped secure MLS Season Pass with double the subscribers it had before Messi’s debut. The main cause and effect of the arrival and early success of Messi is just that, to elevate MLS to a bigger platform and wider audience. So far so good.

The Leagues Cup’s Legitimacy

While Messi’s stellar debut out of the gate will surely gain momentum for MLS, the fact that the success happened in the Leagues Cup gave the tournament an instant sense of credibility.

While it’s considered an international tournament by CONCACAF and FIFA, MLS, more so than Liga MX, was able to capitalize on the opportunity of Messi and the early intrigue to promote itself across the Americas and the world. Because Apple will most likely never divulge the viewership of games, especially those that don’t include Messi, at the moment, we won’t know the extent of the Leagues Cup fandom or interest. But according to Apple TV, MLS and its partnership is on the right track.

The flip side to the Leagues Cup coin is that to many pundits, the tournament is a cheap way for MLS to gain international recognition, without going through the pains of playing away from home and gaining all the perks of the broadcast rights and ticket sales without the need of CONCACAF or CONMEBOL. The South American confederation is interested in having MLS teams in the Copa Libertadores but will likely have to settle for a Copa InterAmerica, hosted you guessed it, in the United States.

The fact that MLS commissioner Don Garber is willing to open Leagues Cup to other nations is a clear sign that MLS is not interested at all in the competition value of a Copa Libertadores or winning even its own regional tournament. Instead, the league would rather create a competition that benefits MLS in the long run, both in revenue and if one of their teams wins the title in recognition.

But MLS is facing a slippery slope. How can the league and its fans truly give value to a tournament that is played entirely in the United States, and where MLS sides outnumber Liga MX sides two to one?

From a purely competitive standpoint, the Leagues Cup is an unserious and unnecessary tournament for MLS and Liga MX teams. The number of clubs entering the CONCACAF Champions Cup can easily be made up by winners of MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and placement in either the playoffs or regular season.

Still, despite how meaningless the tournament might seem in the grand scheme of things, the 2023 Leagues Cup will not be remembered for its fierce competition or the rekindled rivalry of MLS and Liga MX.

It will stand alone forever as the tournament where Messi quickly began to dominate the last great frontier of his career. For that sole reason, MLS, Garber, and the rest of the league’s fans and family have a huge smile across their faces.

We can worry about serious competition at a later date.

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