Written by: Paul McGaughey

Follow: @SportsWriter_PM

Major League Soccer is about to put a bow on its most successful season ever with a belief the best is yet to come.

One of those success stories will be on display Saturday when Los Angeles FC battles the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final to cap off the league’s 28th campaign.

LAFC, which began play in 2018, can become just the fourth team in MLS history to repeat as champions, while the Crew have been going strong since the league began play in 1996.

MLS experienced its largest overall regular-season attendance record in 2023 at 10.9 million and expects that number to reach 12 million including the playoffs. Average attendance also reached an all-time high at 22,111 (according to statistics provided by MLS) and no doubt LAFC helped tip the scales in this regard. On July 4, LAFC and the LA Galaxy set the MLS standalone attendance record when 82,110 spectators gathered at the Rose Bowl.

Furthermore, LAFC sold out every regular-season match in 2023, along with the Philadelphia Union, Austin FC, and expansion St. Louis City SC.

2023 also marked year one of a reported 10-year, US$2.5 billion global media rights deal between MLS and Apple. Overall, MLS says total club sponsorship revenue has increased by 12 per cent compared to 2022 which translates to the highest total and average club sponsorship revenue in league history. MLS was already seeing a significant uptick in jersey sales and digital engagement even before a certain global superstar joined Inter Miami.

Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president, communications at MLS, says the league was in a good position to see record numbers across the board in 2023.

“It's a good time to be in soccer,” Courtemanche told BNN Bloomberg. “We knew it was going to be a good year coming out of the World Cup due to the momentum and energy but we didn't know it was going to be at the level that it's been.

“We knew we had a partnership with Apple, and we were kind of reimagining how soccer fans were going to consume our games: More than 100 countries, no blackouts or restrictions, reaching a global audience with arguably the most innovative company in the world - it's been a game changer and a tremendous success.”

As one might expect, Apple subscriptions soared after Lionel Messi officially joined Inter Miami in July. According to analytics firm Antenna, there were 110,000 sign-ups to the MLS Season Pass add-on the day of Messi’s first game in the U.S. alone, marking a 1,690 per cent increase from the previous day.

The “Messi Effect” was also noticeable at MLSStore.com as Messi became the most-sold jersey of 2023 within 45 minutes of its launch and the most-sold jersey in the history of the site within three days.

Messi’s arrival was also a boon for Inter Miami and MLS on the field. The forward from Argentina helped Inter Miami capture the Leagues Cup in August and created a slew of must-see moments along the way. He made his Miami debut in the first of seven Leagues Cup matches for the club and lifted his side to a dramatic 2-1 victory on a free kick. The Leagues Cup featured teams from MLS and Mexico-based Liga MX vying for the trophy and a berth in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League round of 16.

“We certainly felt the Leagues Cup was a smashing success and exceeded our expectations at every level,” Courtemanche said. “It certainly helped that in game one of the tournament - in the 94th minute - the greatest player of all time comes in and delivers straight out of a Hollywood movie script.

“None of us could have scripted that- you know, truth is greater than fiction. [Messi] delivered and then some. It was like a global spotlight was shining on the Leagues Cup and people were glued to [their screens].”

MLS has come a long way since 1996 when it began as a 10-team league. Two teams were added for the 1998 season, but both folded after 2001.

Today MLS has 29 teams and a 30th team will begin play in San Diego in 2025. Since 2019, the average value of MLS teams has climbed 85 per cent to US$579 million with LAFC leading the way as the league’s first billion-dollar franchise, according to Forbes.

Courtemanche explains there were some bumps along the way to get to this lofty point. He recalls in 2001 that MLS was very close to going out of business, but instead decided to double-down under the guidance of commissioner Don Garber and a revamped business model called Soccer United Marketing to manage the league’s commercial assets.

“The owners said to Commissioner Garber, ‘We really need you to focus on growing this league and expansion.’ In 2005, we went from 10 to 12 teams, and now we will soon be at 30 teams.

“So, it's been remarkable growth due to a really, really smart plan led by our commissioner and credible investment from our owners, changing demographics and ultimately the culture of the beautiful game continuing to grow in the United States and Canada.”

North America is about to become the epicenter of soccer with Copa America in 2024, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and FIFA Club World Cup in 2025 and the men’s World Cup in 2026.

MLS hopes these events will generate even more interest in their brand of soccer and that the league will continue to reach new heights both on and off the pitch.