For 30 years, Sports Poll has tracked the growth of soccer as a major sport in the US. Our first year aligned with the 1994 World Cup, which served as the “Big Bang” for pro soccer in this country. We can single out a few other events that propelled the sport even higher: the 1996 launch of MLS, the US victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and David Beckham’s MLS arrival in 2007. Over the past 30 years, the player who did the most to grow soccer’s popularity here has been Lionel Messi. Despite playing in Europe, he consistently ranked as Americans’ favorite soccer player. Messi also helped FC Barcelona become Americans’ favorite pro soccer team. He accomplished this while playing overseas in games that were inaccessible to most Americans, so we were especially interested to see his impact after he moved to MLS last June. How has he done so far?

Messi Becomes First Soccer Player to Rank as Americans’ Favorite Athlete

Since 1994, Sports Poll has asked Americans to name their favorite pro athlete. We’ve asked this question every month for 30 years, but only seven athletes had ranked as the favorite for one quarter. It’s an exclusive list: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Tom Brady. In Q4 2023 (October-December), Messi surpassed Jordan and Brady to become the first soccer player to rank as the #1 favorite for a quarter. We’d been tracking his rise as favorite athlete for the past decade, but the combination of a World Cup win and the move to the US helped push him to the top for the first time.

americans favorite pro athlete

Inter Miami Emerges as Americans’ Favorite MLS Club After Messi’s Arrival

Immediately after Messi began playing with Inter Miami in July, the club surpassed the LA Galaxy as Americans’ favorite MLS club. The Inter Miami fan base increased by more than 5X between the first and second halves of 2023. Inter Miami also ranked as the 4th favorite overall pro soccer club in the US. This is important because the “Big 3” European clubs (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United) have long held as the top three soccer fan bases in the US. This is the closest we’ve seen a US club rank to the Big 3 in the past decade.

americans favorite mls club


americans favorite pro soccer club

Messi Separates from Ronaldo as Americans’ Favorite Soccer Player

For the past ten years, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have ranked as the two favorite soccer players in the US. There has been a wide gap between these two and everyone else. Over the past year, we’ve seen Messi separate himself from Ronaldo as the clear favorite. Messi received a boost following Argentina’s World Cup win and another once he moved to Miami. At the same time, Ronaldo suffered an early exit in the World Cup and signed with a Saudi soccer league that has limited exposure in the US. Messi and Ronaldo were nearly even heading into the 2022 World Cup. Today, nearly 4X as many Americans name Messi as their favorite.

americans favorite pro soccer player

MLS Fandom Rises After World Cup and Messi’s Move

The number of Americans who identify as MLS fans increased in both the first and second halves of 2023. Historically, we expect to see a halo in soccer interest following the World Cup. This held true in early 2023 as well, and Messi’s signing provided a second bump for MLS fandom later in the year. Compared to 2022, the MLS fan base was nearly 10% higher in the second half of 2023.

% pop mls fans

Sports Poll Flashback: David Beckham’s Arrival in 2007

It’s difficult to compare Messi’s impact vs. the other major US soccer events from the past 30 years because of how different soccer fandom, the sports landscape, media, and broader free time interests are today. David Beckham’s arrival to MLS in 2007 is probably the closest comparison. If we look at Beckham’s impact on MLS and LA Galaxy fandom, the early results for Messi are similar. In 2007, Beckham announced his move to MLS in January but didn’t begin playing games until the summer. We saw increases in both MLS and Galaxy fandom over the course of the year. Beckham’s arrival further accelerated the boom in soccer that had started in 1994.

percent pop mls fans


americans favorite mls club

We won’t know the true impact of Messi’s arrival for years. Normally, we’d expect the greatest impact to be with younger fans (and potential fans) who are just beginning to follow soccer. There are a few potential roadblocks though. One is how much Messi will play. Obviously the more he plays, the more opportunities there will be to grow the sport. Even more so if he plays more often in road games. Another is access to Inter Miami games. Messi may be playing in a more favorable time zone for Americans now, but most of those games are paywalled for casual fans and non-fans who don’t subscribe to MLS Season Pass. That means the few games that are broadcast on traditional TV have even greater importance. Everything is set up for Messi to push soccer fandom even higher in the US, but the context is not the same as 1994, 1999, or 2007.