Soccer-Messi mania highlights 'epic' year for MLS, Garber says


Soccer Football - Club Friendly - Inter Miami v New York City Football Club - DRV PNK Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States - November 10, 2023 Lionel Messi poses with his eighth Ballon d'Or, Inter Miami co-owner Jose Mas and Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber during the Noche d'Or ceremony ahead of the match REUTERS/Marco Bello/ File photo

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lionel Messi's arrival in the U.S. this year helped Major League Soccer shatter attendance records at home while elevating its profile abroad, commissioner Don Garber told Reuters.

"His impact has been unimaginable," Garber said in an interview on the same day Messi was named Time's Athlete of the Year for 2023.

"We are now not just part of the global conversation, but one of the biggest stories in global football. The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer because the best player in the game is here and succeeding."

After leading Argentina to a World Cup triumph last December, Messi sent North American ticket prices into the stratosphere when he spurned a lucrative offer from Saudi side Al-Hilal to join last-place Inter Miami.

He made an immediate impact, scoring a jaw-dropping game-winning goal in his July debut and Messi mania went into overdrive as he racked up 10 goals in seven Leagues Cup matches to lead the club to their first trophy.

"You couldn't have scripted the Leagues Cup performance any better," Garber said.

MLS, which wraps up its season with the MLS Cup on Saturday, enjoyed its biggest audiences ever, with nearly 11 million fans attending matches, about a 5% increase year over year, Morning Consult said in a report released Friday.

Messi's splashy arrival especially helped boost the league's popularity among the coveted millennial audience, making it the seventh fastest growing brand among the group, the research firm said.

Garber said he was also "very pleased" with the first year of the 10-year, $2.5 billion global media rights deal with Apple, a sentiment echoed by Apple CEO Tim Cook on a recent earnings call.

"The metrics on and off the field have been spectacular," Garber said.

"It's just great to see that our league can deliver for a player like Leo Messi in ways that we have. And it's great to see Leo Messi deliver for MLS in ways that we had hoped he would."

Garber said he has "every expectation" that the 36-year-old Messi will stay in MLS for the remainder of his contract, which runs through the 2025 season.

THE NEXT MESSI

MLS will now get to work on luring more stars by leveraging the league's unique structure, where all of the teams are owned by MLS itself and profits are shared at various percentages among the clubs.

That structure allowed owners to allot a percentage of revenue from subscriptions to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV to Messi, a key reason he signed.

"The league now has to be thinking, is there another opportunity that we could work together on and figure out ways to attract someone like the next Leo Messi to come to one of our clubs," Garber said.

Frenchman Antoine Griezmann of LaLiga's Atletico Madrid has expressed his desire to play in MLS and could be one of the next big names to join.

"It was an epic year for Major League Soccer," Garber said.

"It's rare that high expectations get delivered on and they did for MLS in 2023 on so many different levels."

(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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