MLS is squandering golden Messi opportunities

Inter Miami's Argentine forward #10 Lionel Messi controls the ball during the MLS football match between Inter Miami and Real Salt Lake at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, February 21, 2024. (Photo by Chandan Khanna / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi kicked off his first full MLS season with Inter Miami Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Chandan Khanna / Getty Images) (CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images)

Major League Soccer employs Lionel Messi, perhaps the most popular human on planet earth, and its 2024 plan to capitalize on his greatness appears to be this:

1. Put the first match of Messi’s first full season behind a paywall, on a Wednesday night, to hide it from most casual sports fans.

2. Incite a power struggle with the U.S. Soccer Federation that is once again angering dedicated supporters as the 2024 season kicks off.

3. Lock out MLS referees, and scramble for replacement officials, to draw condemnation from the MLS Players’ Association and distract from what should be the most anticipated season in league history.

Messi, of course, wowed in the opener, a 2-0 Miami win over Real Salt Lake. But did you anticipate it? Did you watch? Did you even know it was happening?

Diehards knew, of course, but I asked a group chat of seven on Wednesday: Will you watch tonight? Have you paid for Apple’s MLS Season Pass?

One said he had paid, but wouldn’t be watching. Another gets complimentary access as a season-ticket holder with an MLS club. The five others hadn’t paid, and probably won’t. Some said they’d find an illegal stream Wednesday. Others wouldn’t bother.

These, to be clear, are all certified soccer sickos in their mid-to-late 20s. All are American soccer fans — and Americans, and soccer fans; all but one live in the Americas, and all but two in the United States. They’ll exchange dozens of messages on Premier League matchdays, and also during the Asian Cup and Africa Cup of Nations. They’ll watch everything from the Belgian Pro League to the CONCACAF Champions Cup, almost any footy they can find.

But most didn’t want to pay $100 to watch one season of a single league that probably ranks somewhere between 10th and 20th globally.

Perhaps they’ll cave in the dog days of summer, or when Messi lights up social media, or when their hometown Philadelphia Union catch fire; perhaps they won’t.

And that’s semi-alarming.

“If you’ve lost the ’Chat where Daniel Gazdag has been mentioned 100x more than the President of the United States’ demographic,” one member wrote of MLS, “then you’re f***ed.”

For those not in the know, Gazdag is a 27-year-old Hungarian midfielder for the aforementioned Union.

MLS’ deal with Apple for global broadcast rights, worth at least $2.5 billion over 10 years, is a long-term play that could ultimately be a massive win for the league. Right now, it’s also a massive barrier. Some games are free on Apple TV; most require a subscription priced similarly to ESPN+ — which gets you Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga and a bajillion other leagues and sports. It’s more expensive than Peacock, which gets you most of the EPL; and more expensive than Paramount+, which gets you the Champions League and plenty more.

And if the sickos chat isn’t paying for it, the average American sports fan almost certainly isn’t watching — as many would if Messi were on Fox or ESPN. Many will see Messi highlights or consume Messi coverage over the coming months. Many did on Wednesday night. But that doesn’t mean they’ll learn about other MLS teams, or stay engaged after Messi’s gone.

They are precisely the people MLS needs to attract; precisely the people Messi should be able to attract. MLS, instead, seems to be missing a massive chance to grow its audience.

And even within the soccer community, it is stumbling. Its attempt to send reserve teams to the 2024 U.S. Open Cup, the country’s longest-running tournament, sparked widespread backlash in December. Longtime MLS critics drove a chunk of the outrage; but the league’s self-interest left a sour taste in the average fan’s mouth. And it resurfaced this week as plans materialized for an Open Cup with most MLS teams uninvolved.

That was one topic reporters pressed MLS commissioner Don Garber on Wednesday in South Florida. Another was the ugly labor spat with MLS refs. After months of contentious negotiations, the league’s refereeing body reached a tentative agreement with Professional Soccer Referees Association leaders; but PSRA members voted overwhelmingly to reject that agreement on Saturday, four days before the start of the season, leading to a lockout.

Major League Soccer (MLS) referees and supporters picket outside MLS headquarters around labor's symbolic
Major League Soccer referees and supporters picket outside MLS headquarters around labor's symbolic "Greedy Pig" balloon, after MLS implemented a lockout against referees following their rejection of a contract offer. (AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

So there Garber was, hours before freakin’ Lionel Messi was set to open a season in Major League Soccer, essentially questioning whether the league’s referees were acting in good faith.

“I can’t remember, in my near-40 years in sports, having a bargaining unit reach agreement and then not have their members support it,” Garber told reporters. “Very disappointing. The process, in my opinion, was one that either was intentional, or there’s a disconnect between the members and their elected negotiators.”

The referees, meanwhile, spent opening day picketing outside MLS headquarters in New York City, and outside a replacement referee training hub in Dallas. They publicly demanded better pay and working conditions. They strapped an inflatable pig to the top of a car in New York; they stood up a giant inflatable rat in Texas.

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a former college and second-division ref took charge of Messi’s opener, and looked shaky. A full slate of games this weekend will inevitably deliver mistakes — and more unsavory headlines.

“On the eve of the 2024 MLS season, attention should be focused on the competition on the field,” the MLSPA, the players’ union, said in a Tuesday statement. “The use of replacement referees will not only negatively impact the quality and results of our matches, it may jeopardize the health and safety of players.”

There was, to be clear, still lots of attention on the field. There was attention on Luis Suarez, and the Inter Miami superteam, and Messi. They have undoubtedly broadened MLS’ and American soccer’s reach. How much, exactly, is unquantifiable. Apple never releases viewership or subscriber numbers. No traditional metric or media outlet can act as a gauge. Consumption habits are changing.

But the controversies surely corrupted some small portion of the buzz.

Apple’s paywall outright blocked a bigger portion.

MLS, of course, will capitalize plenty on Messi. In many commercial ways, it already has. Its clubs have enjoyed spikes in revenue and season-ticket sales. Its global visibility — in the eyes of fans, players and brands alike — is greater than ever before.

But much of that was inevitable. Maximizing it, not just capitalizing, is vital — because Messi’s first full campaign also might be his second-to-last. His contract is a finite window. His presence is a golden opportunity to draw as many Americans to soccer, and soccer fans to MLS, as possible. And right now, the league seems to be squandering some of it.