Now that we’re in the Round of 16 in the 2023 Leagues Cup, it feels like two competitions have emerged. There’s Leagues Cup featuring a mixture of Liga MX and MLS teams. And then there’s “Messi Cup,” i.e. any game featuring Lionel Messi starring for Inter Miami. One is producing incredible drama and amazing goals scored from free kicks. In the other cup, without Messi, the results have been mixed.

After a few years as a glorified series of friendlies under various formats, the Leagues Cup has evolved into a fully-fledged tournament. Officially sanctioned by the US, Mexico, and CONCACAF, the competition sends three clubs to the newly-reworked Champions Cup starting in 2024. The month-long competition has even touted as a big deal by its creators, but has Leagues Cup actually lived up the hype?

Lucky Leo

Putting aside everything else, the inaugural Leagues Cup will forever be remembered for one thing: the arrival of Lionel Messi in the United States.

It was a perfect bit of timing for tournament organizers. The legendary Argentine made his move from Paris Saint-Germain to Inter Miami of MLS just before the event kicked off. His debut game was on the first night of the tournament against Cruz Azul. And as if it were scripted, he delivered his trademark magic, scoring a stoppage time free kick game winner at home.

And he’s continued to run riot over the competition, scoring twice in each of his three games since, leading Miami (the worst team in MLS in 2023 before his arrival) to four straight wins overall and into the quarterfinals.

But aside from the masterful performance of Messi, which has caused a boom in merchandise and ticket sales involving Inter Miami, how else has the tournament faired?

How Leagues Cup is doing on television

The entirety of Leagues Cup is on the MLS Season Pass service throughout most of the world. But the league did secure a supplementary national TV deal in English-language with FOX Sports. This included a small number of select Leagues Cup games. Subsequently, TelevisaUnivision picked up a small package of Spanish-language rights in the United States.

Asked how the TV ratings are doing on U.S. television, Walter Franco, a principal at Victus Advisors, a firm that works in global soccer, said, “It’s hard to tell on the Apple side, but Univision/TUDN ratings haven’t been abysmal, but to be honest most soccer games on that family of networks generate modest viewership at a minimum.”

TV ratings reporter Larry Johnson added, “On Univision, the Leagues Cup is averaging about what Liga MX pulls (in the 800,000 range) on an average weekend. Without the Messi match (against Cruz Azul which had 1.7 million viewers), these games have been low, comparatively (in the 500,000 range).”

On English-language television, the viewing numbers are below average. Only two of the eight games on English-language television have registered any interest, according to Johnson. The best those two matches could do was 173,000 for a Club América versus St Louis game on FS1. “Young viewers are likely watching on MLS Season Pass, but it is a noticeable drop from regular season games,” Johnson stated.

South of the border in Mexico, all of the Mexican TV providers initially passed on Leagues Cup. As a result, Liga MX made all of the games available for free for one month on MLS Season Pass.

Reaction from Mexico to Leagues Cup

While there’s certainly been a buzz in the United States on social media about Leagues Cup due in large part to Messi’s heroics, what has the reaction been to the tournament thus far in Mexico?

“Minimal,” said Franco. “It’s getting coverage and criticism on talk shows [in Mexico] because there are no other games to cover or broadcast, but the interest is generally low. If games – although I doubt this would ever happen — were to be played in Mexico in the future, I doubt there would be strong ticket demand.

“On both sides of the border, fans are already used to seeing each other play over the years either through the [Concacaf] Champions League and summer friendlies.”

Asked what the two biggest criticisms are about the competition thus far from Mexicans, Franco replied, “First, referees. Second, playing the games in Mexico.”

MLS referees officiate games differently than other leagues around the world. That includes Liga MX. So it takes time for players and coaches to adjust. For instance, in Major League Soccer, games are a lot more physical. As an example, MLS referees often award just a free kick for fouls that would see a yellow card brandished in other leagues.

Gauging the gates

An official, big tournament featuring cross-border matchups with Liga MX clubs? That should be a hit in attendance, right? Well, as it turned out, not exactly.

Liga MX is a hugely popular league in the United States. In fact, it’s the most popular soccer league in this country in terms of TV viewership. But that interest is generally concentrated 1) in certain areas of the USA and 2) for certain big Liga MX clubs. So, especially for what many fans still consider as an unimportant distraction, translating that into buying Leagues Cup tickets isn’t a lock.

Looking back at the Leagues Cup group stage, you’d have to say that the overall attendance underperformed. The average for the 45 group games was 17,678. That’s worse than both the 2023 MLS and Liga MX regular season overall average attendance figures. Only an average of 75% venue capacity was filled throughout, with several games pulling in under 10,000 fans. A couple even drew under 1,000.

Messi’s Inter Miami was the only MLS team that saw a meaningful bump in attendance over their league average. But even then, they came a few hundred seats short of selling out their second and third Leagues Cup games with the star.

While average attendances is down, ticket revenue for many clubs is up as teams charge top dollar to see the action. Plus, for many of the MLS teams, Leagues Cup tickets are not included in the season tickets, so that means extra income for both MLS and Liga MX.

Timing is everything

Leagues Cup occupies an interesting spot on the American soccer calendar. Smack in the middle of the MLS season. But also, oddly, just three weeks into the Liga MX Apertura campaign. Both leagues have taken a month-long break for the new competition.

In addition, the positioning in late-July and August has put the tournament head-to-head with several other high profile soccer events.

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as the Soccer Champions Tour, Premier League Summer Series, LaLiga Summer Tour, and other friendlies all overlapped with Leagues Cup. This had fans in the US, Canada and Mexico having to make decisions with their time (and money).

As it turns out, the Champions Tour and Premier League Summer Series both outdrew the Leagues Cup by a substantial margin.

Reaction from MLS fans to results thus far

For the most part, fans of MLS teams have been enthusiastic about the results in Leagues Cup. Several Liga MX clubs have been knocked out, so what does that say about the defeated Mexican teams?

“It’s no secret or surprise that MLS has been more competitive against Liga MX,” Franco said. “The bottom half of Liga MX clubs is at the same level or sometimes worse than MLS clubs in the same range (acknowledged by both Mexican media and fans).”

Notably, a trio of powerhouse Liga MX clubs remain in the competition as of press time. They are Club América, Monterrey and Tigres. Ideally, seeing a Major League Soccer team defeat any one of those teams in the final would certainly tip the scales in favor of the US-side of the border.

No doubt, there is still time left in this first go-round of the revitalized event for a rise in interest. Perhaps the late knockout stages will indeed deliver must-see games and lasting moments.

In North America, the soccer landscape is constantly evolving. Time will only tell if Leagues Cup becomes a keystone event each year, or if it’ll end up being like its predecessor, the SuperLiga, which was a novelty that eventually went away.

In the short-term, as long as Messi stays injury-free and Inter Miami is in the competition, Leagues Cup is a hit.

Additional reporting by Christopher Harris