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MLS is about more than Messi as 2024 begins – but not all of it is good: Rueter

Ahead of last Wednesday’s kickoff of the 2024 MLS season, Don Garber gave an extensive interview to the Sports Business Journal. Eventually, he was asked a question that’s been on the minds of anyone with even a passing interest in the league or its history: “How is the league looking to capitalize on Messi’s star power in his first full season in MLS?”

The MLS commissioner’s answer seemed to be going normally enough when, seemingly out of nowhere, he simultaneously took aim at those who cover the league and one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

“It’s easy and somewhat lazy for reporters to just write about Messi — it’s like writing about Taylor Swift,” Garber said. “There’s so much more here that I think people need to recognize.”

Garber’s message here puts him at odds with his fellow commissioners. The NFL’s Roger Goodell never pleaded the media to focus less on Swift — and why would he, given the significant increase in audience she’s brought? Former NBA boss David Stern didn’t bemoan frequent courtside cutaways to Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee, just as successor Adam Silver won’t be bothered that Drake remains a fixture at Raptors games. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would probably love to add a few celebrities to the league’s public image if it kept this spring training’s conversation away from see-through pants.


Measuring the superstar impact of Taylor Swift and Lionel Messi on American sports

And that’s just the celebrity angle. Can you imagine any of those guys asking for less coverage of the leading lights of their respective leagues – the likes of Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James, or Shohei Ohtani?

It’s worth noting, of course, that each of those sports have a historic and well-established level of local media coverage that fills in the gaps between the stars. MLS has never enjoyed that kind of buy-in, thanks to factors mostly out of its control: soccer’s up-and-coming status for most of the last half-century and widespread cuts to local journalism outlets among them.

But even given the opportunity to highlight lesser-known stories the league might like others to see, MLS continues to lean toward the big one. Garber’s own annual season-kickoff open letter only made it two sentences before mentioning that “Messi told the world that MLS was his ‘League of Choice.’” The MLS Season Pass hub on Apple TV has a landing section called “All Eyes on Messi.” Two documentaries about the Argentine legend were frequently advertised during MLS matches regardless of whether Miami was on the pitch.

Even the league’s opening weekend seemed designed for maximum Messi exposure; Inter Miami has already played two games before the Vancouver Whitecaps logged a single minute.

LeBron James, Kim Kardashian and Serena Williams were among the celebrities to come out for Messi’s Miami debut (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

In a vacuum, none of this is indefensible. It’s Lionel Andres Messi, the most famous (and, to most, the best) player in soccer history! And yet, MLS seems almost embarrassed to play sidekick to a player it employs.

So what is MLS (beyond Messi) in 2024 as its 29th season is underway? It’s a competition that’s more confident in its direction and composition than ever — whether you agree with it or not.

In some senses, MLS is aggressively consolidating. Following your favorite team requires paying for a mandatory all-league season pass that’s no longer offered via promotional discounts. The league is also now directing more of its promotional attention to competitions that it (at least partially) organizes: more Leagues Cup, less CONCACAF Champions Cup. Every developmental team in MLS Next Pro, but none in the USL.

And then there is the case of the U.S. Open Cup.

On Saturday — the night before the Columbus Crew were awarded their MLS Cup rings at Field — the Houston Dynamo raised a banner in honor of winning the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It’s a competition that brandishes the name of one of MLS’s most impactful founding owners. Was it featured like the major honor it is in the Dynamo’s 1-1 draw against Sporting Kansas City, a team founded and formerly owned by Hunt himself? Not really – the play-by-play referred to Houston as defending champions and the banner was shown for a few seconds.

Since mid-December, MLS has been trying to change its participation in the 110-year-old competition. The mid-week fixtures haven’t been an easy sell, even if the same fact bore out during the first round of last year’s postseason. After the Leagues Cup final posted a viewership of 1.75 million on Univision alone — although it would be lazy of me to point out that a recently-arrived Messi was involved in that game — doing the hard yards in the name of a century-old tournament with games played against lower-division teams seemed downright quaint to league owners. Especially after launching a buzzier, ideal-for-streaming Leagues Cup with Liga MX.



Explained: The future of U.S. Open Cup and why the European Super League ruling matters

The 2024 U.S. Open Cup kicks off on March 19 and, thanks to MLS owners, we don’t yet have a good idea of how it’ll look. We know all of the USL’s clubs will take part, although that wasn’t a guarantee amidst MLS’s search for an exit door. We also know that 32 teams of amateur players have qualified in what’s likely the highlight of those people’s careers.

What we don’t know is if MLS teams will participate, how many will enter the field and, if not, whether they’ll send their developmental teams from Next Pro into the arena while they rest in their more lavish abodes.

The season also kicked off amidst a work stoppage, after the Professional Soccer Referees Association’s (PSRA) membership overwhelmingly voted to reject its leadership’s tentative agreement with PRO for a new collective bargaining agreement via a vote of 95.8 percent “no.” As referees who previously worked in youth, collegiate and lower-division professional leagues took to MLS pitches, Garber called the voting result “very disappointing” and speculated that it may have been intentional.

Without an expansion team to provide some “growing the game” good vibes, no big star acquisitions outside of Miami and no huge player sales to boast about, the referees and the Open Cup are undeniably the two biggest storylines around the league outside of a cadre of aging legends in South Beach.

MLS has started the 2024 season with replacement referees amid a lockout (Morgan Tencza-USA TODAY Sports)

There isn’t much change to reflect upon in terms of the sporting composition. The league’s place in the global transfer market has stabilized over the last half-decade, since the buzzy trio of Miguel Almirón, Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies left MLS for Europe after the 2018 season. The biggest development here is that the league’s inbound acquisitions skew younger, with most teams determined to build around players in the prime years from 24 to 29 while taking a flier or two on promising talents from abroad. The aggressive loosening of roster rules that many predicted would accompany Messi’s arrival have yet to land – and they might never (though MLS executive Todd Durbin struck an optimistic tone with The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio after this piece was published, saying talks would lead to “substantial and important changes.”)



MLS owners met in Miami to discuss roster rules, potential for increased investments

Garber has never been shy about rejecting the “retirement league” label assigned to MLS in its early years, and especially when David Beckham left Real Madrid for the LA Galaxy in 2007. The focus for much of the last 10-15 years was on making MLS more of a selling league, both by signing younger players and sophisticating its clubs’ youth development pipelines.

Should he be frustrated, then, that the hard work toward that end has been drowned out by a quartet of near-retirees playing for the team that Beckham launched well below market value by virtue of a clause in his Galaxy contract?

MLS teams outside of South Beach know the score. Ticket prices for Miami away games skyrocket whether Messi is likely to play or not. The New York Red Bulls saw dollar signs and admitted defeat in 2023, selling Messi and Miami gear alongside their own at the advice of Adidas.

On Sunday, the LA Galaxy booked house music great Alesso to play at halftime of their game against Miami – suffice it to say that is not a regular occurrence. Before the game, the procession of local youths walking onto the field alongside professional players was turned into its own sideshow, as Messi was escorted by Saint West, the eight-year-old son of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Remind me why Swift caught a stray in Garber’s interview last week?

There’s no doubt that Messi is bigger than MLS at this stage, just as Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer were bigger than the NASL. Hell, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were bigger than La Liga in their heyday. But like the Spanish top flight, MLS will endure well beyond Messi’s retirement. The question is whether the moves it’s making will create fans who stick around once he leaves.

The Open Cup could be one possible avenue toward creating those relationships. Instead, MLS has decided that it is less of an asset and more of a product to be marketed and profited from or abandoned, following a trend now happening at a breakneck rate throughout all of sports.

Many of us got into soccer because of the community around it: the camaraderie and banter, the celebration and commiseration. In 2024’s MLS, a team can win a historic domestic trophy only for the league to downplay the competition altogether.

Others of us got into these games because of the skill of the athletes and the interest in watching a soccer league’s style of play be formed out of whole cloth, improving and evolving in real-time. But can the level of play be raised without qualified referees to oversee it?

At this stage, MLS wants to project a tone that it’s bigger than its most famous player. It feels confident enough in its construction to stand tall and boast about the whole of its entity, even amidst a strike and a messy squabble over a storied tournament.

In a cruel twist, the league may actually be counting on the fact that all anyone wants to write about anymore is Messi. If they focused elsewhere, they might find storylines that are harder to stomach.

(Top photos of Messi: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP; Garber: Jason Allen/ISI Photos/Getty Images; Houston: Roy Miller/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF; Design by Dan Goldfarb)

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