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Lionel Messi says MLS has ‘every chance’ to become as popular as European leagues

The presence of Lionel Messi is already changing football in the United States. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

MLS is one of the youngest football leagues in the world, but its newest star believes it can become one of the biggest.

Inter Miami striker Lionel Messi, who has taken MLS by storm after leaving French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain in June, said he believes MLS can become as popular as other European leagues such as England’s Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1.

“I think it has every chance to do that,” Messi told ESPN’s Luis Miguel Echegaray on Friday. “That growth strongly depends on the competition. It is an ideal time to grow. Important competitions are coming up that will be played in this country.” [like the 2024 Copa America and the 2026 FIFA World Cup].”

It is true that American interest in soccer is growing. Look no further than the USA women’s team, which won back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019 before exiting a shocking round of 16 in 2023. The team’s group stage match with the Netherlands also attracted a record 6.429 million viewers for Fox.

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Television and personal viewers at domestic clubs are also gaining momentum. Matches on ESPN and ABC were up 16% from 2021 to 2022, and while streaming number information on Apple TV+ is not publicly available, Messi’s July 21 debut was the most-watched match in the short history of the MLS Season Pass. Apple, subscriptions have gone up dramatically.

On the ground, MLS broke its attendance record in July when more than 82,000 fans watched the annual “El Tráfico” game between LA Galaxy and LAFC. In March, the NWSL also broke the opening weekend attendance record.

“It’s time for the league to take that leap and stop growing, stop looking for what it’s been looking for for a while,” added Messi. “Everything is here to see football at the highest level because of the country, the structure, a lot of things.”

The presence of Messi is also an important reason for this growth. His decision to join MLS over more lucrative offers in Saudi Arabia or Europe sparked a ticket-buying bonanza, and his talent has already improved product on the field. That, in theory, should trickle down to the rest of the league and sport in the US

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But it will take more than one man for the MLS to make it to the European leagues in terms of popularity. The English Premier League averaged 527,000 viewers on NBC platforms in the United States, compared to the 343,000 average viewers on ABC and ESPN in 2022. That’s a gap that will take some time to fill, but Messi’s game should make it speed up.

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