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How much would you pay to see Lionel Messi?

MLS clubs are using the Messi Effect to hike prices, when they should be creating stronger fanbases.

Messi & friends | Courtesy Inter Miami CF

You’ve seen the news: All around the league, team ticket offices are taking clear advantage of Lionel Messi playing in MLS to egregiously hike up season ticket prices. 

By itself, I can see the logic. Messi is the greatest player of all time; why wouldn’t any club use that as a hook to entice their fans to invest in a continuing relationship? I can even see the logic in raising prices a smidge: The on-field product has improved greatly, Messi aside, and by all accounts MLS provides a tremendously entertaining spectacle with its fairly high scoring and unpredictability. As opposed to the often turgid, rote displays on offer from European leagues like what you see in France and Italy. 

Here’s the issue, though: Messi, however transcendent a figure he may be, will only be here for a brief moment. When MLS teams lean on his potential presence on the field to price gouge – and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what’s going on here – potential season ticket holders who are only interested in MLS because of Messi’s presence, you’re excluding the folks who got you here in the first place. 

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Let’s take a look at New York City FC. I’ve spoken off and on with various ticket reps. I was an inaugural season ticket holder, before giving up my tickets for various anodyne reasons; because I’m not just a previous purchaser, but an early adopter (so to speak), I’m a prime sales target for conversion. 

The challenge for these salespeople, however, is that there’s no real value proposition beyond the self-identification of being a “City Member” for buying a season ticket for NYCFC matches. 

As I explained to the last one I spoke with: I can buy a prime seat on the secondary market for just about every match for pennies on the dollar. There’s no real incentive to spend the money necessary for a season ticket because of that. And the absurdly low prices for tickets on the secondary market mean that recouping the funds spent on season tickets is nigh impossible. 

But couldn’t you do that by selling your tickets to the Inter Miami match? Perhaps. But two challenges present themselves there:

  • The novelty of seeing Messi play will decrease
  • There’s a real limit to folks willing to pay the extortionate amounts for that single match

The NYC sports market is overstuffed, and the number of people willing to spend $250 to see Messi but unwilling to spend that money on something else is rather small.

Both challenges go together, and operate to the exclusion of people who might be willing to watch New York City play, regardless of whether Messi plays, and thereby convinced to consistently come to NYCFC matches, and ultimately become season ticket holders. 

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A better approach for New York City FC would be to emulate what the Chicago Fire are doing. Anyone who bought a ticket to the Fire’s match against Inter Miami and attended the game is being offered a $250 credit for a new season ticket purchase, or a $50 credit account credit if they can’t use the new member credit.

For a team like NYCFC, currently in the midst of a clear rebuild, that would be an intelligent, community-oriented effort that encourages current and potential fans to invest their faith and credit in a club that claims to be New York City’s own. 

In the end, isn’t that what soccer is all about?