Whether it’s the imminent arrival of football’s undisputed GOAT Lionel Messi on Miami’s South Beach; the Women’s national team travelling to Sydney hoping to lift a record fifth FIFA Women’s World Cup this month or even the number of American cities all vying to host the country’s own FIFA World Cup Final held in 2026; America, and its fans, are officially ready to adopt the beautiful game.
Straight off the bat: for the purpose of this article, I’ll be calling it football and I won’t be taking any questions from the back – I’m sorry, it’s not my intention to alienate you, but this is a hill I’ll die on. Let’s move on, shall we?
Football holds a special place in the hearts of millions of fans all over the world. In Europe, we all had posters of Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and R9 adorning our bedroom walls, we were amazed by the dancing feet of Jerzy Dudek in 2005 and the generational skill of Ronaldinho throughout the noughties. We remember the first grainy World Cup game we saw on TV and the first live match we were lucky enough to go and see; there’s an intrinsic beauty in the game that’s deeply rooted in our fandom, and now America is seemingly ready to join the party.
For America, one of the most sport-centric nations in the world, it’s been a long time coming. The expansion of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996 was a huge stride forward in mass adoption nationwide, with newly formed teams, stadiums and communities galvanising American football fans like never before. In the 70s and 80s, the existing North American Soccer League was the biggest league in the country, boasting iconic talents such as Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer but ultimately collapsed in 1984 due to financial reasons.
Now, in 2023, the MLS is due for its moment.
Messi Mania in Miami
The MLS gave football fans a home in America, and since then has expanded to 29 clubs in North America and Canada. Since then more and more players have opted to join the American football revolution happening stateside; Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry and of course, Golden Balls himself, David Beckham, whose recruitment in 2007 pioneered a momentous shift in perception in football in this country.
It was Beckham’s unique contract that allowed for more and more superstars to join and increase MLS stock exponentially. According to Forbes, his base salary at LA Galaxy was only $6.5 million USD (~$9.4 million AUD), but after Beckham left in 2012, he was taking home more than $250 million USD (~$363.2 million AUD) across the five years, through endorsements, shared revenue and more.
As part of Beckham’s transfer, a clause was inserted that allowed him to purchase his own MLS club, Inter Miami, which became the latest side to join MLS, debuting in the Eastern Conference during the 2020 season.
It’s paved the way for football’s greatest-ever player, the (un)disputed GOAT, Lionel Messi to swap Europe for North America and he could make his debut as early as next week. Aged 36, Messi joins on a similar deal to his now boss’ once famed contract.
Messi will enjoy shares of revenue from streaming giants Apple after it was confirmed they had committed $2.5 billion USD (~$3.6 billion AUD) over ten years for rights to games, with MLS becoming the “first major US sports league to go all-in with a tech company.”
For comparison, streaming service Paramount+ signed a $200 million deal to broadcast A-League and W-League games exclusively in Australia.
Over the weekend, Lionel Messi was unveiled as an Inter Miami player for the first time, with more than 65,000 fans packed into the Hard Rock Stadium under the lights. “I’m so happy to be here! I can’t wait to start training and competing,” said Messi in front of a sold-out crowd in the pouring rain. “I’m here to compete, to win, to help the team as I always did”.
WATCH Lionel Messi is unveiled as an Inter Miami player for the first time in front of 65,000 fans below.
Messi’s announcement came as no surprise to many. Although it was reported that Beckham’s Miami side was competing with the unlimited buying power of the Saudi Pro League, added incentives and revenue shares ultimately sealed it for Messi and his decision to move stateside, and after it was announced that the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner would be joining the newly formed Inter Miami, Messi mania went through the roof.
Overnight, Inter Miami’s Instagram followers exploded by 6 million in less than 24 hours, making it the most followed MLS team in the league by a significant margin. Such is the undeniably astronomical following of Lionel Messi that if the football fans weren’t in America already, they certainly are now.
USWNT and FIFA Women’s World Cup
This year, Australia and New Zealand will host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, bringing the internationally-renowned tournament to this part of the world for the very first time in history.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced that more than one million tickets had been sold to this year’s elite competition, saying “Australia & New Zealand 2023 is on track to become the most attended FIFA Women’s World Cup in history. The future is women – and thanks to the fans for supporting what will be the greatest FIFA Women’s World Cup ever!”
A search data survey at short-stay specialists Airbnb looked at which nation’s fans are flocking to the international tournament in higher numbers, and has revealed that the USA boasts the second-highest number of fans who are making the journey to Sydney this month to cheer on USWNT to lift their record-fifth World Cup.
And rightly so, the USA enter this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup as leading favourites, boasting the likes of Alex Morgan, Lindsey Horen and Megan Rapinoe, making her final appearance for her national side, having been one of the most dominant forces in international football over the last 30 years.
From the 1991, 1996 and 1999 teams that lifted the first World Cup trophies and Olympic golds, to the modern side that added two more World Cups in 2015 and 2019, as well as collecting Olympic golds in 2004, 2008 and 2012, the USWNT has ascended to the top of the world rankings.
Continued success for USWNT has not only inspired a new generation of young female players but has attracted hundreds of thousands of American football fans to celebrate this sport, with more and more fans turning to football than ever before.
2026 FIFA World Cup
For the first time in its 96-year history, the FIFA World Cup will feature 48 teams and be held across three host countries, Mexico, Canada and of course the United States, with football mania gripping the nation since the announcement in 2018.
The World Cup, by pure definition, will be huge for football in America, not only from a sporting perspective but a commercial one, too. More than 1.5 billion viewers tuned in to watch Lionel Messi’s Argentina beat France in the 2022 World Cup final – for comparison, an average of 12.4 million fans watched the Denver Nuggets win the 2022 NBA Finals this year.
The impact on football in America will be like something never seen before, and the new expanded format is only going to increase the immense interest that already exists, with FIFA President Gianni Infantino even predicting that “by 2026, soccer or football will be the number one sport in this part of the world.”
The last time a World Cup was held in the USA was in 1994, which still holds the record for the most fans to attend a World Cup in history – and even though more than 3.5 million people turned up to the tournament which saw Brazil overcome Italy in the final, Infantino thinks “2026 will be much, much, much bigger.”
Today, football in the United States is on an upward trajectory, growing exponentially with each kick of the ball. From passionate fans, state-of-the-art stadiums, and more and more world-class talent joining the country’s premier division, the future certainly looks promising for the world’s favourite sport and could mean that the USA might just be ready to join in.