Opinion: Lionel Messi and Other Stars Can Help MLS Make Soccer Betting a Fan Favorite

  • Messi’s debut drew the most viewers for an MLS match since 2004
  • MLS viewership had a strong 2022 and was up 16% year-on-year
  • Other stars are also joining MLS, helping drive its popularity
  • Soccer betting has a chance to grow in the “dead season” of US sports
Messi signing
Could Lionel Messi signing for Inter Miami serve as a catalyst for the rise of soccer betting in the US? [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Star power

Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS and subsequent debut goal have already catapulted the league to the front page of the morning news—but what effect will it have on the trajectory of soccer betting in America?

The MLS season typically runs from late February or early March to mid-October, right in the heart of the “dead season” in American sports. It’s a time when the NFL, NBA, and NHL are out of action. MLB is the only one of the major American sports leagues still in session at that time, and that is not until after the MLS campaign is already underway.

MLS has a golden opportunity to drive soccer betting’s popularity

As more top stars such as Argentina’s Messi join the league, MLS has a golden opportunity to drive soccer betting’s popularity, making it a mainstay with Americans. The early signs are certainly promising.

Messi’s influence

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Messi recently left Paris Saint-Germain to join Inter Miami, where he made his debut Friday, July 21. He was subbed on in the 54th minute and drilled a game-winning free kick from the edge of the box in 90’+4’ with stars such as LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Serena Williams in attendance:

His debut drew an average of 1.75 million viewers, the most for an MLS event since 2004.

Messi is the latest big-name star to join the MLS, following in the footsteps of other greats such as David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Giorgio Chiellini. He’s also been joined by former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets and may team up with Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez in the future if reports are to be believed.

Viewership on the up

MLS viewership is already coming off its most-viewed season since 2007 (based on Disney-networks viewership). An average of 343,000 fans tuned into regular-season matches on ABC and ESPN channels last season, a 16% year-on-year increase that was largely thanks to a spike in child audiences, significant given that this is the next generation of fans.

Viewership for the main demographic of ages 18-49 also increased by 4%, which is great news for the sport’s core following.  

a 10-year deal with MLS that will bring “season passes” to Apple TV+

Apple also made waves earlier this year by signing a 10-year deal with MLS that will bring “season passes” to Apple TV+. The league will earn an average of $250m per year from this deal, a large increase on the $90m it previously earned. That money will help go towards the investment and development of the league, which will in turn help its continued growth. 

A hole in the schedule

As the MLS continues to pick up steam as a spectator sport in America, the sportsbooks are undoubtedly licking their chops.

The 2022 Qatar World Cup was a major catalyst in soccer betting interest. According to pre-tournament estimates, more than 2 million Americans were ready to wager an excess of $1.8bn on the once-every-four-year tournament that culminated with one of the greatest final matches in sports history. Fittingly, the competition was won in penalties 3-3 (4-2) by Messi’s home country, Argentina.

Stars have the ability to drive interest anywhere they go. Messi’s decision to take his talents to South Beach helped Inter Miami become the fourth-most-followed team in American sports in less than ten days:

What does it mean?

All of this plays to the advantage of the MLS because of the hand-in-hand effect it will have on the growth of soccer betting. The “dead season” is a time when sportsbooks see a downturn in revenue figures because bettors simply aren’t that interested in the events that are on television.

ensure bettors stay locked in with their favorite sportsbooks

If soccer continues its upward trajectory, FanDuel, DraftKings, and other top operators will have more marquee events to market—and they will be at a time when there isn’t congestion with the NFL, NBA, and NHL seasons. That will balance the annual returns and will ensure bettors stay locked in with their favorite sportsbooks for the full year.

While this is a unique opportunity for MLS, the league must also deal with competition from Saudi Arabia, which is taking a similar approach of targeting marquee names to grow its soccer league. It recently authorized a $20bn spending spree and just this week offered a package worth more than $1bn to sign Messi’s former PSG teammate, Kylian Mbappé.

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