The Lionel Messi Effect: Could the Legend’s Arrival Price Out ‘Real’ Fans?

The 36-year-old World Cup winner has been an instant hit for Inter Miami and Major League Soccer, and while Miami currently has the hottest ticket in town, will the high prices turn away hardcore fans when things cool down? 

When Lionel Messi scored his game winning goal against Cruz Azul in the dying minutes of Inter Miami’s first win in months, it was a proud day for the club and Major League Soccer. Things like Inter Miami’s shoddy defending and the fact that Messi was playing with the worst collection of teammates in his career were looked over as American soccer could savor the moment that they had fought for for three years.

Messi was finally playing in MLS, and the tickets for his first game were through the roof. The sellout crowd of nearly 21,000 spent up to $5,000 to get in the door, and strange offers for tickets within the $10,000 range were never confirmed as sold. Despite a magical night where the worst team in MLS was able to win with a soccer icon, with the likes of LeBron James and Kim Kardashian in the stands, the question for hard core fans was still very much in their minds, how long is Inter Miami going to milk the Messi effect?

The Messi Effect is Being Felt Across the Board

With all of Messi’s away MLS matches already sold out or selling out at four times the ticket value, one could consider that normal. It’s not often the greatest soccer player to ever live plays a possible full 90 in Charlotte. Also, in 2024 MLS will most likely adjust its schedule to make sure some of their major markets like Seattle or Portland or traditional markets like Kansas City and Salt Lake City get a chance to at least witness Messi once in his possible three years in MLS.

MLS’ over-expansion has made it difficult to think that Messi will play in all of the West Coast venues by the time his two-and-a-half-years are done in the league. However, MLS should know how to adjust things to take advantage of a situation. In his first half-season, Messi will go out West only once before the regular season ends, against LAFC.

From $200 kit sales to a percentage of Apple TV, to high priced tickets for his U.S. Open Cup semifinal in Cincinnati, Messi and company are making a killing as the Messi Express in MLS begins to leave the station.

For Ignacio Martinez, member of Inter Miami’s supporters’ group Vice City 1896, he and the hardcore fans know the club needs to take advantage of the new situation it has with Messi.

“Very high prices, but we understand why,” he said. “We also understand that the league sets the prices, and the team does whatever possible to lower the cost for their supporters.”

Most of all, Martinez is hoping that ticket costs for 2024 can be readjusted so the club does not hurt the fanbase that has been there from the start, and he said the supporters are in communication with the club on ticket prices and other matters “on a daily basis.”

Taking Advantage While Keeping the Core

After Messi was subbed off during Inter Miami’s 4-0 win over Atlanta United, droves of fans went for the exits with 15 minutes left. Sure it was a Tuesday night, sure many fans were also tourists who didn’t want to leave too late in a foreign country at night, but also it sent a bold statement: How many fans are going to DRV PNK Stadium​ to support Inter Miami and how many are going to watch Messi?

For Martinez, all Vice City can do is show passion for the team. The rest is what it is.

“The team can’t really control that, everyone saw how these people were leaving right after Messi got substituted,” Martinez said. “We know that some will stay after he leaves. We’re here for Inter Miami and no player is bigger than the club they play for.”

Other Inter Miami fans are not as understanding. Major concerns from fans that have been with the club from day one are arising, as Inter Miami prices have skyrocketed, with some tickets as high as $400. A family of 4 would spend as much as $1,600 for a soccer game in the United States, basically paying World Cup prices for an MLS match.

Against Orlando City in the Leagues Cup Round of 32 game, tickets on Ticketmaster are as low as $147 and as high as $450. The average MLS ticket according to Ticketmaster is between $40-$50 in 2023.

When it’s all said and done by 2025, and Messi has made more money than he could ever had hoped for at 38, Inter Miami is hoping that they will be in the position of local basketball team the Miami Heat, winners of at least one MLS Cup and few other trophies, all while having a rabid fanbase that eventually learned to care about Inter Miami.

It has been a game plan tried before, but its success rate is questionable. Pele’s arrival to the New York Cosmos in the NASL was lighting in a bottle, but shortly after he left, the league collapsed and the Cosmos never drew the numbers they had while Pele played for them. David Beckham saved MLS from folding in 2007, but the Los Angeles Galaxy had always drawn well over 20,000 fans when winning. The problem was no one wanted to watch an MLS game on television at a national level. The league’s TV audience had always been low and Beckham and the arrival of the new type of spending did little to increase TV audiences.

Enter Messi, once again entrusted to put Major League Soccer among the elite. His mere presence has already made MLS owners think of adding a designated player slot and raising the salary cap, and it has Apple wanting more Messi-like players scattered all over MLS clubs to make the league more than a one-show pony for its global audience. Apple has recently stated that MLS League Pass has passed the 1 million subscribers mark, and that since Messi signed with MLS, 300,000 new subscriptions have occurred.

MLS has thrived in its near 30 years, from a 10-team joke to a healthy league with nearly 30 teams and over 20 soccer-specific venues. It now has a healthy transfer market where the league buys and sells players, and is favored by a healthy United States men’s national team that has Americans playing not only in the best leagues in Europe but starters on some of the world’s best teams.

It will most likely take a decade to truly measure what the signing of Messi means to MLS and soccer in the United States. Messi’s arrival also coincides with the 2026 World Cup which will mostly be played in the U.S. It’s a World Cup that the powers that be hope names like Christian Pulisic can stand out more than even a Messi, to finally put a strong American face to the world’s game.

Until then it’s a rocket ship ride for Inter Miami and MLS as Messi, who will be very relevant around the world as he will also represent Argentina in critical World Cup qualifiers in September and a Copa America in 2024. Messi is the conductor and inviting everyone on board his legendary train, let’s just hope MLS and Inter Miami don’t forget about the fans who were there way before LeBron James ever sat in the VIP.

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