Lionel Messi’s debut was a win for MLS, what’s next counts most

Lionel Messi’s first days in MLS have been a dream for the league.

Now, MLS’ greatest challenge — and a crucial step their predecessors failed to accomplish — is building off of the superstar’s buzz-making arrival.

Messi’s last-minute, game-winning free-kick goal in his Inter Miami debut against Cruz Azul Friday night nearly seemed scripted with how perfect of a moment and first impression he made to begin what is likely the final chapter of his career. But beyond the stunning goal, there have been plenty of signs Messi’s early days in America have been exactly what MLS wants, and needs.

His debut reportedly drew 12.5 million viewers, breaking the record for the most-watched soccer game in U.S. television history. In the first year of MLS’s 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple TV to be the exclusive broadcaster for every match, it’s a needed boon for MLS Season Pass, the league’s and network’s new subscription streaming service they’re banking on to be financially lucrative.

For comparison, the 2022-23 NBA Finals averaged 11.56 million viewers across the five games, according to Yahoo.

In order to bring new subscribers to the network, there’s no greater draw in the world than Messi.

And with Messi getting compensated by the league for the number of new MLS Season Pass international subscribers that sign on, it could be beneficial to Messi as well.

Though he didn’t enter the game until the second half, Lionel Messi appeared to be a good investment for Inter Miami and MLS with a game-winning goal in his debut.
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Inter Miami has grown exponentially in international popularity and awareness since Messi’s arrival.

Since he announced his decision to sign, the team has gone from just over one million followers on Instagram to currently 11.7 million followers, and still growing. That mark is greater than any MLB, NFL or NHL team, and is by far the greatest in MLS.

Though the exact numbers have varied, ticket prices sky-rocketed for his debut as well as any game — home or away — he’s scheduled to play. Some of the world’s biggest celebrities and athletes, including LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and others, came out to witness Messi’s debut, seemingly in awe of his stature.

Within the past few weeks, Messi arguably has delivered the most attention the league has ever had. But MLS, and Inter Miami, didn’t agree to his exorbitant contract solely for a few weeks of exposure.

The goal is for Messi to help elevate MLS to higher standing both among American sports fans and on the world soccer stage.

After the freshness of Messi playing in America wears off, is the interest sustainable? Can MLS parlay the recent intrigue into long-term fandom?

Long considered the greatest competition to Messi for the mythical title of  “best soccer player ever,” Pelé can serve as a lesson.

After starring for Brazilian club Santos and the Brazilian national team his entire career, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League convinced Pelé to come out of retirement with a three-year, $7 million deal in 1975 — making Pelé the highest-paid athlete in the world.

LeBron James along with Serena Williams and other record Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi (10) as he prepares to make his debut during the Leagues Cup match between Cruz Azul and Inter Miami CF on Friday July 21, 2023 at DRV PNK Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
LeBron James and Serena Williams were among a sizable throng of celebrities and star athletes to attend Messi’s first game with Inter Miami on Friday.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just like Messi’s first days in the United States, Pelé immediately brought American soccer to new heights.

His debut with the Cosmos on CBS drew 10 million viewers, which set the record at the time for the most-watched soccer game in the United States.

The Cosmos quickly moved from playing in front of small crowds on Randall’s Island in 1975, to Yankee Stadium in 1976 and then to the new Giants Stadium in 1977, regularly drawing mammoth sellout crowds both at home and on the road. The team’s attendance tripled in just the first half of his first season, and the Cosmos set a North American soccer attendance record (at the time) of 77,691 in an Aug. 14 exhibition against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Giants Stadium.

Although there was no social media at the time, there was a media frenzy around Pelé and the Cosmos wherever they went, following his every move.

And like Sergio Busquets followed Messi to Miami, aging international stars like Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia followed Pelé to the Cosmos.

All of a sudden, Pelé made the Cosmos and New York the center of the soccer universe.

But the NASL could not translate their Pelé success into long-term interest. The league declined rapidly in popularity after the star retired in the early 1980s, and by 1985, the NASL suspended operations.

Pele' #10 of the New York Cosmos in action during an NASL Soccer game circa 1976 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Pele' played for the Cosmos from 1975-77.
Pelé’s arrival in New York saw the Cosmos have to play their games at Yankee Stadium in 1976 before they had to move to Giants Stadium a year later.
Getty Images

Fans who tuned in to watch Pelé did not stick around after he left, as the league had envisioned.

Will Messi and MLS’s marriage be different?

After the novelty of Messi playing in America dissipates, will fans continue to tune in — and pay to do so — to a team that currently owns the worst record in the league, particularly if they remain far from the playoff picture?

Will they watch other MLS games, and follow the league at-large?

Can they create a new generation of American soccer fans, and continue to build soccer into one of the Big Four sports in the country?

Or, like Pelé, is the interest solely in Messi?

As much attention as he drew, it’s hard to say if the NASL’s investment in Pelé was worth it in the long run.

If Messi’s American tenure goes similarly, and interest fades when he leaves, will MLS’s investment be considered a success?

Given what it took for MLS to edge out competing leagues and teams, it likely wouldn’t.

Fans hold a flag of Lionel Messi #10 of Inter Miami CF during the Leagues Cup 2023 match between Cruz Azul and Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium on July 21, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A sellout crowd in Ft. Lauderdale provided the backdrop to the most viewed soccer match in U.S. history.
Getty Images

Perhaps social media and its deal with Apple will help MLS do what NASL couldn’t. Both allow the league to reach and engage with fans across the world, and bring more attention to a league that often is looked down upon or overlooked altogether.

So, too, can David Beckham, the soccer great who is part of Inter Miami’s ownership group. He was influential in Messi deciding to join Miami, and can play a similar role as an ambassador for the league to recruit similar talent.

With their historic investment, MLS is banking on Messi helping transform its outlook.

But history is not exactly on its side.

Today’s back page

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Is three the magic number for Azeez Ojulari?

Taylor Heinicke #4 of the Washington Football Team scrambles from defender Azeez Ojulari #51 of the New York Giants during the first quarter at FedExField on September 16, 2021 in Landover, Maryland.
A healthy Azeez Ojulari could transform the Giants’ pass rush.
Getty Images

There might not be any Giants player for which training camp and the preseason is more important than Azeez Ojulari.

Entering his third season with the Giants since they selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft, Ojulari is at a critical juncture both for his own financial interest and for his stature as a focal point on the team’s defense.

He flashed tantalizing potential his rookie season, recording eight sacks (setting the Giants’ rookie record in the process), 13 quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss. But a myriad of injuries limited him to just seven games last season, in which he recorded 5.5 sacks, seven quarterback hits and three tackles for loss.

When he’s been on the field, Ojulari has been a dominant pass-rusher. And despite the small sample size, Ojulari likely is the most accomplished pass-rusher on the roster.

Even though he missed over half the season last year, Ojulari’s 5.5 sacks were second-most on the team to Dexter Lawrence’s 7.5. Kayvon Thibodeaux, whom the Giants drafted with the No. 5 pick in the 2022 draft to be Ojulari’s partner in crime on the other side, was third on the team with four sacks. As a rookie in 2021, Ojulari’s eight sacks led the team.

Kayvon Thibodeaux #5 of the New York Giants defends against the Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium on November 13, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
In drafting Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Giants hoped to pair him with Ojulari to make life difficult for opposing QBs.
Getty Images

The season ahead will likely dictate what kind of deal he can expect for the second contract he will seek in the near future. After this season, Ojulari would be approaching the final year of his rookie contract.

Under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme, the Giants ranked 13th in sacks (41), eighth in quarterback hits (106), 22nd in tackles for loss and 17th in sack percentage.

For the Giants’ defense to take the next step as a unit, the most obvious path is Ojulari and Thibodeaux making jumps to become the game-changing talents the Giants envision them to be.

Let the Kylian Mbappe sweepstakes begin

Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the pre-season friendly match between Paris Saint-Germain and Le Havre at Campus PSG on July 21, 2023 in Poissy, France.
Kylian Mbappe’s time at Paris Saint-Germain is coming to an end, but where he plays next may take some time to sort out.
PSG via Getty Images

It’s fitting that just as Messi begins what is likely his last chapter in MLS, the player tabbed as his successor as the best in the world finds his future clouded in uncertainty.

In the latest twist to the ongoing saga between Kylian Mbappe and Paris Saint-Germain, the French powerhouse left Mbappe off their roster for their pre-season tour in Japan, reportedly informing other clubs that he is for sale.

The 24-year-old Mbappe’s contract expires after this upcoming season, and unable to agree to a long-term deal with their superstar, PSG seemingly wants to avoid losing him for nothing next summer.

If he truly is available, it creates the most-anticipated sweepstakes since…his own transfer from Monaco to PSG.

Which clubs actually have a realistic chance at landing the most sought-after player in the world?

There aren’t as many as one might think.

If they’re back in the race, Real Madrid likely stand above any other team given their deep pockets and standing on the world stage. Both sides would have to do an about face after their ugly, public spat last summer.

The president of Real Madrid, Florentino Perez, holds a press conference after receiving the Real Madrid Basketball Club on May 23, 2023, in Madrid, Spain. Real Madrid won the Euroleague 2022-2023 last Sunday, May 21, winning its eleventh title in the top continental competition after defeating Olympiacos of Greece 78-79 in the final played at the Zalgirio Arena in Kaunas.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez thought he had lured Mbappe to the club last year before the star suddenly returned to PSG.
Europa Press via Getty Images

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez claimed that Mbappe had agreed to a deal to join Real Madrid last summer, with Los Blancos ready to complete the transfer from PSG. But Mbappe did a U-turn at the last second, seemingly using the interest from Madrid to secure a huge deal to stay with PSG — which even gave him control over image rights.

Spanish giant Barcelona, Italian power Juventus, perennial German champions Bayern Munich as well as top English sides Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea are routinely the top suitors when players of Mbappe’s stature are transferred.

But Barcelona has battled well-documented financial woes in recent seasons (part of which fueled their decision to sell Lionek Messi to PSG), and likely doesn’t have the means at the moment to outbid other pursuers.

Juventus had 10 points deducted last season for false accounting and finished seventh in Serie A — meaning they won’t be playing in the esteemed Champions League tournament this season.

Although he hasn’t directly said it, participation in the Champions League is likely a necessity for Mbappe. And without that tournament’s revenue, Juventus likely isn’t in good position for a transfer of this magnitude.

Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain runs with the ball during the pre-season friendly match between Paris Saint-Germain and Le Havre at Campus PSG on July 21, 2023 in Poissy, France.
Mbappe’s unstated desire to move to a team slotted into Champions League play may limit the number of clubs for whom he’ll want to play.
PSG via Getty Images

Manchester City is regularly a front-runner in these races and is likely the best team in the world at the moment, spending lavishly under owner Sheikh Mansour, who is the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and oversees the nation’s state-owned sovereign wealth fund.

But does Mbappe want to join the same team as Erling Haaland, who is emerging as a rival to him as the best player in the world? And in the throes of a long-running investigation into fraudulent transfers, does Manchester City think it’s the right time for a transfer of this scale?

Manchester United has both the stature as one of the biggest and most storied clubs in the world and will play in the Champions League this year after finishing third in the Premier League last year. But with the Glazer family reportedly in the midst of critical talks to possibly sell the team, they’re unlikely to greenlight spending what it’ll take to land Mbappe.

Liverpool has both the size of club and finances needed, but after finishing fifth in the Premier League last year, won’t be in the Champions League. Would Mbappe overlook that?

Arsenal is a team on the rise after finishing second in the Premier League last season, and made a real statement of intent this summer in their transfers.

Erling Haaland of Manchester controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League 2022/23 final match between FC Internazionale and Manchester City FC at Atatuerk Olympic Stadium on June 10, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.
With Erling Haaland already on the roster, Manchester City may not want to invite the fireworks of an intra-team rivalry by adding Mbappe.
Getty Images

With legendary former manager Arsene Wenger and team icons like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires as well as so many others, Arsenal has a deep French connection.

Mbappe and Arsenal share a history as well, as Wenger revealed he almost signed Mbappe as a teenager before he joined Monaco.

But after signing Declan Rice for a record fee for an English player ($131 million), surely they don’t still have the resources for Mbappe. Right?

Bayern Munich checks every box — one of the biggest teams in the world, one of the biggest spenders in the world and in the Champions League next year. But it’s hard to envision Mbappe playing in Germany.

There is, of course, Saudi side Al-Hilal, who reportedly offered Mbappe a contract worth around $445.3 million and a $222.5 million transfer fee to PSG. Does his ambition lie in going down as one of the greats, or could an exorbitant offer win out?

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