Thursday, June 8, 2023

Messi and US TV

A look at what Messi playing for MLS (/Apple) means for the league's TV viewership and global subscribers.


As a player born in the late 1980s, Messi is the last of a generation of players that learned how to play without the everpresent eye of camera phones and YouTube. Many of the early videos that often pop up on social media are recovered VHS or Super 8 tapes that had to have been transferred to digital.

His formative years saw the rapid growth of what we now call pay-tv but back then was simply called "cable" and then, of course, the consumer internet exploded right around the time Messi made his debut with Barcelona. 

What this does is make him a sort of storybook character in our lives. A player who was seemingly planted pixie dust from Maradona's exploding start, sprouted out of some rocky pitch in Argentina then swept up and taken to Spain to become king of the sport. 

Fantasy aside, it's a story that everyone on the planet with humble beginnings dreams about. The original Wonderkid. We didn't see everyday posts of him as a teen at Newell's Old Boys in the 1990s or any stunning exploits at Barcelona in the early 2000s like we do with players now so we have to fill in the gaps. It was knowing somebody, who knew someone from Argentina that played with him. Or finding out about him from an English kid who played '06 Championship Manager on his computer.

By the time Messi and Barcelona won the treble in 2009 anyone in the developed world that wanted to see him play, probably could on TV and if they couldn't on TV, they watched his highlights on a 4-year-old platform called YouTube. The early days of that platform contained legendary highlight packages of players set to the most Euro-dance music you've ever heard or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the soundtrack from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Around this time we also saw wide-screen TVs enter the scene which practically seem custom-built for the sport of soccer.

The 2010s is where things exploded for Messi and a massive part of it was that he was doing this during a time when all the world could see it and, possibly more importantly, monetize that viewership.


At 35 years old his competitive playing career is over. Soccer is a sport that puts an incredible amount of mileage on you. Americans are a little more accustomed to seeing NFL quarterbacks play a long time or NBA superstars hang on in their late 30s. In soccer, it just doesn't happen at the higher levels.

In the US, there is no pasture for players in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB to go once they are "past it," but in soccer - there is.

Messi now will certainly be able to dart around an MLS pitch (grass, not sure he will play on any of the many turf fields) and do amazing things like most older stars that come to MLS, but as a competitive event, it will be more of an exhibition where you can see a legend work his craft, possibly a little magic, once more.


This order of what Messi will bring is exactly what Adidas and Apple expect, which is why they are sharing the load of his contract with MLS. Adidas will sell a lot of jerseys and Apple will see an uptick in MLS Season Pass traffic, though I'm not expecting much after the first few months. I do think jersey sales will be off the chart.

MLS games involving Messi will certainly see an increase in sales and price. I know this superstar effect as I purchased a ticket to a Columbus Crew game in 2010 just to get a glimpse of Thierry Henry (who didn't play).

MLS has lost its footprint on traditional television with FOX being the only network left showing games in English. I do think there is some flexibility there for MLS to move Miami games to "big fox," but it just depends on when he arrives (and if the game is on grass).

I do not expect much measurable change in viewership on Eng-lang outside of his debut and any other marquee games like the MLS Cup Final (and maybe the all-star game). Span-lang will be a different story. Games involving Messi in the Leagues Cup on Univision will do well. If Messi makes the MLS Cup Final, it will also do well.

We might not get numbers on the MLS Season Pass side. I'm sure we'll hear "subs increased 200%" or something like that, but no hard numbers. 

I don't have any estimates on subscription numbers but based on historical viewership data for MLS I do estimate there is something like 50k watching on the service during FOX games, now. Post-Messi I expect FOX Deportes to see the largest jump in interest. It's effectively "0" now but it could jump up over 100k or so.


When legends die it is always said that they are the last of their kind. This is true, of course. The last of Messi's kind will be that we didn't have some relationship with him via social media or watch him make his debut on TV (or streaming). 

As it was with this whole generation of players that include David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Zlatan, Andrea Pirlo, Wayne Rooney, and Bastian Schweinsteiger - filling in those missing gaps is part of the supernova that is Lionel Messi.

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