Messi’s Miami Move Raises Hopes of a Surge In Support for US Soccer

Fewer than one in 10 Americans are soccer fans, compared with 44% of the population following American football

Photographer: Chandan Khann/Getty Images
July 20, 2023 | 04:40 PM

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Bloomberg Línea — Thirteen percent of US sports fans say they follow soccer “every day” or “several times a week,” compared to 44%, 33% and 32% who watch American football, baseball and basketball respectively.

This backdrop seems inauspicious or even adverse for the arrival of Lionel Messi, the Argentine striker considered the best player in the world, to Major League Soccer (MLS) team Inter Miami. However, sports industry insiders are betting on the soccer star to change the reality of the sport in the United States.

And the same goes for brands, which are beginning to join in on this wave with the expectation of creating a niche for advertisers.

It also seems to be a difficult terrain for the next FIFA World Cup, which in 2026 will be played for the first time in three countries: Canada, Mexico and the United States. However, businesses continue to bet on the sport.

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The soccer industry is shaped by MLS, which recently added a 30th team in San Diego, while the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) hopes to expand to 16 teams by 2026.

The value of the teams also continue to rise. LAFC became the first MLS franchise to reach the $1 billion valuation mark in 2023, while the NWSL, meanwhile, has seen record team valuations, surpassing $50 million, with a San Francisco Bay Area expansion team set to begin to play in 2024.

According to a Morning Consult report, 40% of sports fans find soccer boring to watch, and 19% feel it is too slow. These factors contribute to the widespread perception that soccer is not as exciting as other more popular sports in the country.

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What are the growth opportunities for soccer in the US?

One of the key strategies for increasing soccer’s popularity in the United States is to reach out to younger generations, especially millennials, who represent the majority of soccer fans in the country. It is also important to engage Generation Z, which is a key audience for the future of the sport.

But the diversity seen among US citizens is not reflected in US soccer viewership.

According to Morning Consult, nearly seven in 10 soccer fans, defined as those who watch, read or seek information about the sport at least once a month, are male, while more than half identify as white. They also tend to be younger, though not the highest earners (with 43% earning less than $50,000 a year).

The industry is convinced that millennial soccer fans can pass on this passion to their children, the children of Generation Alpha, as happened with the previous generation with baseball and American football.

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To this end, the industry is also looking to rely on video games. Twelve percent of millennial and Hispanic respondents said they play soccer video games several times a week or every day, which is almost twice as much as the average US adult.

What will be the ‘Messi effect’?

The pollster’s most recent data finds that 25% of US adults said they plan to follow an MLS season with Messi playing for Inter Miami either “very” or “somewhat” closely, up seven points from a survey in November 2022.

Still, 63% of sports fans said in June that they plan to follow an MLS season with Messi playing for Inter Miami either “not very closely” or “not at all closely.” Three-quarters of adults (75%) and nearly one in three soccer fans (32%) said the same.

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Even among those who have a favorable opinion of MLS, 46% said they will not follow the league too closely, if at all.

Meanwhile, in terms of sponsorships, XBTO, AutoNation, Baptist Health, Heineken, Florida Blue and Adidas are currently listed as sponsors on Inter Miami’s official website, and Martin Bal, founder of GMB Press, and more contracts are expected to be added in the coming days.

Atlanta United is the “sponsor champion” team, with brands such as Mercedes Benz, American Family Insaurance, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Delta, Equifax, Lottery, Georgia Power, IBM, Novelis, Scania Energy, The Home Depot, Ticketmaster, Truist, Globalpayments and Adidas, among others.