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As the WNBA’s Caitlin Clark era begins, what can the league learn from Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS?



As the WNBA's Caitlin Clark era begins, what can the league learn from Lionel Messi's arrival in MLS?

The American professional sports landscape has no shortage of stars, but in the past year alone it inherited two potentially game-changing athletes: Lionel Messi and Caitlin Clark.

It may not be an obvious comparison at first, as Clark is a collegiate sensation about to begin her professional career with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, while Messi has been football’s biggest star for over two decades and is one of his final career stops in MLS with Inter Miami. However, the Messi and Clark effects speak for themselves: both have attracted more fan and media attention to their respective new leagues, sponsorships and ticket revenues and carry the long-term hopes of those leagues on their shoulders.

Both Messi and Clark have been touted as transformational figures for MLS and the WNBA, two leagues that have been eager to carve out a bigger niche for themselves in North America’s crowded sports scene for nearly three decades. The MLS played its first game in 1996, while the WNBA did so a year later. While the leagues’ growth is rarely correlated, they have fascinatingly arrived at the same point at the same time – and lessons can be learned from each other in the process as they hope the stars they put front and center have a long-lasting will have an impact.

“What we’re talking about in the case of Caitlin Clark and Leo Messi, they’re not among the most popular athletes in their sports — they’re by far the most popular athletes in their sports,” said Scott Robson, the academic director of the sports management program at Columbia University. “As a transcendent athlete, you have the ability to really elevate the entire sport and really bring it to another level of attention.”

The Messi effect so far

Messi managed to break the busy news cycle last July when he signed with Inter Miami and captured the American public like few other footballers have. Miami has clearly reaped the benefits of his arrival, becoming the third most followed American sports team on social media and appearing in the stadium on home and away days. However, they are far from the only ones to post strong returns early in the Messi era.

According to league data, MLS enjoys greater relevance on social media. It added 5.4 million followers on social media ahead of December’s MLS Cup final — six times as many as in 2022 — and the most on TikTok and Instagram with 2.2 million and 2 million, respectively. Social media engagement is up 200% for the 2024 season, while MLS club mentions are up 15% and league site traffic has grown 102% year over year.

League sponsorship revenues also rose 17% this year, while club sponsorship revenues rose 15% and MLS Canada revenues rose 44%. For individual clubs, 24 of the 29 teams in MLS said they had an edge in season ticket sales ahead of the 2024 season compared to a year earlier, with season ticket revenue up 25%. Time will ultimately tell whether the Messi experience will catapult MLS to new levels of popularity, but these are strong early returns that will allow clubs to convert their audiences to the stadium experience – for example, DC United estimates that 60% of people those attending a match will likely return, per Sportico.

Messi’s arrival is also inextricably linked to MLS’s 10-year broadcast deal with Apple, which started last year. The streamer has a near-exclusive global deal to broadcast games, a first for Apple and a unique bet for a class of MLS status on one of its most important revenue streams. The deal now includes a revenue sharing element with Messi, which makes an unprecedented deal like this worth paying attention to. The streamer experienced an immediate effect upon Messi’s arrival, with More than 110,000 people subscribed to the MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+ ahead of his first game.

Once again there are early signs of positivity, but in terms of key performance indicators during the Messi era of MLS, the Apple deal remains a big question mark as it is the first of its kind. Neither the league nor Apple regularly publish viewership or subscriber figures, meaning it’s still difficult to gauge whether this new, largely hidden element of the Messi experience has brought new fans to the MLS.

“To continue to build on the momentum in both competitions with both star players, there will need to be a solid plan that can be sustainable and one of the things that is needed is widespread, mainstream distribution to the population.” says Ketra Armstrong, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “If you have to pay to go to certain places, only the diehard fans will most likely be willing to give up their resources to do so. To get more attention, I think they need a more national broadcast.” on a more regular basis.”

And for more WNBA, don’t miss games and coverage all season long on CBS, CBS Sports NetworkAnd Paramount+ from Tuesday kick-off to the final.

Lessons for the WNBA

Clark’s arrival in the WNBA is expected to provoke a similar immediate reaction to Messi’s in MLS, including packed stadiums for the Fever’s home and away games – the Connecticut Sun have already sold out their home opener against Clark’s new team. Viewership numbers could also increase based on numbers from this year’s WNBA Draft, which averaged 2.45 million viewers on ESPN. These numbers are also expected to be much more readily available than MLS’s at Apple, as the WNBA primarily works with more traditional media companies like Disney, CBS and Scripps.

The new Fever recruit also arrives at an opportune time for the WNBA. The league is seeking a new broadcast deal starting with the 2026 season, giving it time to prove its worth during the early years of Clark’s professional career while adding more games to the schedule through expansion. Their current deal, which also includes games on Amazon Prime Video, is worth around $60 million per year, per Frontoffice Sport, but the WNBA sees something between $80 and $100 million per year. It would represent a record number for a women’s sports league, but Clark’s call could allow the WNBA to break away from the joint negotiations it is currently in with the N.B.A.

“The question for the WNBA is whether Caitlin Clark can have that kind of impact on their media deal,” Robson said. “It’s certainly a substantial increase in value, whether it’s combined with the NBA deal or not.”

While a notable increase in broadcast revenue appears to be on the way for the WNBA, the league still has a lot of ground to make up when compared to MLS. It lags behind the MLS in terms of sponsorship revenue, number of teams and valuations – the Seattle Storm is the WNBA’s most valuable team at $151 million, per Snelbedrijfwell below the average MLS team valuation of $678 million, per Sportico.

There are several reasons to explain the discrepancy, but chief among them is the historical devaluation of women’s sports.

“There’s a lot of room to grow for the WNBA and they still have a way to overtake MLS. Look, MLS is a man’s sport, so the obvious answer is first and foremost,” Robson said.

It’s still early days, but the WNBA may already be making some progress when it comes to business partners — the Phoenix Mercury just landed a multi-year jersey patch sponsorship with Cleveland Avenue, reportedly worth $3 million per year, the highest figure in the competition. per Sportico. The deal may not be due to the Clark effect, which may represent a greater vote of confidence in the WNBA’s appeal than anything directly tied to one person.

That perhaps serves as something of a cautionary tale for both MLS and WNBA. Some have criticized the singular focus on Messi and Clark by the leagues and the ecosystems that support them, sometimes failing to strike the balance between capitalizing on a sports star and highlighting other deserving talents. Clark sharing the spotlight with other athletes could be a strength for the WNBA, which this year welcomed a high-profile draft class with two women who defeated Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes in the last two NCAA championship games — LSU’s Angel Reese in 2023 and Kamilla Cardoso out South Carolina last month. And those are just the rookies. The league is already home to most of the world’s best basketball players including A’ja Wilson, who just closed a signature shoe deal with Nikeand Breanna Stewart. It could also be crucial during Clark’s first few years in the league, as it’s unclear how quickly she can transition from the best in college basketball to a star in the professional game.

“There’s certainly a group of young athletes in the league who are coming in with a lot of name recognition and who, as a cohort, I think are very, very important to the future of the WNBA,” Robson said. “The good thing – and the hopeful part, realistically – is if the wave of popularity for women’s sports continues.”

The same isn’t true for MLS, which does have a roster of recognizable stars, including Messi’s teammate Luis Suarez, but many of them are international imports making short stops in the league. The MLS traditionally cannot sell itself as the top destination in its sport, unlike most other American sports leagues, making it more difficult to strike a balance.

“The WNBA is the destination league for elite women’s basketball and MLS – I think it’s changing, but I think it’s still growing. It’s still in a growth phase,” Armstrong said. “When Messi came, it was another layer of legitimacy. If one of the best players in the world went to MLS, I think that added an element, another layer of justification and legitimacy, to the league. If you compare it to the European leagues and the other leagues around the world, it’s not there yet. That doesn’t mean it can’t maximize the market space it occupies.”

A focus on just one star is generally a calculated risk, and perhaps a necessary one for the MLS and WNBA as they chart exponential growth. The most sustainable strategy, however, requires that each league leave room for other stars to shine as well.

“You’re always trying to grow the next athlete because if you don’t, you’re going to have a hangover effect when that athlete eventually leaves the competition,” Robson said. ‘We saw it in the NHL when [Wayne] Gretzky left, we saw it in the NBA after that [Michael] Jordan left. There will always be the next great athlete, but it usually doesn’t happen right away, so you want to make sure you continue to groom the next generation of stars even as you sell and focus on your most important athlete.