Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Explained: Messi vs Ronaldo in MLS vs Saudi Pro League

Cristiano Ronaldo recently said the Saudi league is better than MLS, the US league where his biggest rival Lionel Messi has recently moved to. Forbes India parses the two

Naini Thaker
Published: Jul 19, 2023 03:02:38 PM IST
Updated: Jul 19, 2023 03:12:50 PM IST

Explained: Messi vs Ronaldo in MLS vs Saudi Pro LeagueCristiano Ronaldo in a recent statement said that he thought the Saudi Pro League was better than Major League Soccer. Recently Lionel Messi, transferred from PSG to MLS' Inter Miami CF; Photo by Aurelien Meunier - PSG/PSG via Getty Images

On Tuesday, after Al-Nassr’s 5-0 preseason loss to LaLiga side Celta Vigo, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo told reporters, “The Saudi league is better than MLS (Major League Soccer).”  

The statement came days after Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s biggest rival who recently took a transfer from Ligue 1 team Paris Saint-Germain to MLS’ Inter Miami CF, was unveiled at an event at Fort Lauderdale in Florida.   

Ronaldo further added that he will not be returning to a European team or playing in the US. He said: "Now all the players are coming here ... In one year, more top players will come to Saudi Arabia.” 

In fact, several prominent players including Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema from Real Madrid and N'Golo Kante from Chelsea, have joined Saudi Arabian clubs like Al-Ittihad. Many more have been approached by Saudi top teams, as per reports. 

So, the question no longer is who’s the G.O.A.T—Ronaldo or Lionel Messi—but would you root for MLS or the Saudi Pro League (SPL). Forbes India does a comparative analysis:  

Business model 

The MLS was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. To avoid issues that the North American Soccer League faced in the 1980s, MLS was set up as a single-entity structure: Major League Soccer, LLC. Teams and player contracts are with this entity itself. 

The league follows an investor-operator model. This means entrepreneurs invest in MLS as a whole, and are allowed to own a team as well as manage the business affairs of MLS. So, while individual teams earn revenue from local broadcasting rights, sponsorship, merchandise etc., “teams must share a part of their profits from ticket sales and transfer activities with the league”, states a Harvard Business School working paper (2021). However, revenue from the national broadcast rights and league-level sponsorships goes directly to the MLS. The benefit here is that since MLS is one entity, “no one team can hijack the league”, states a blog on medium.com

This is different from what one finds with most other football leagues, including the Saudi Pro League. 

Teams in the SPL are separate entities. Recently though, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund unveiled its Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project, which announced that four SPL clubs—Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal—will be transformed into companies. Seventy-five percent of each will be owned by PIF and the rest by various nonprofit organisations. As per reports, the Saudi government wants the league to quadruple revenues to $480 million by 2030. These clubs are also hoping to target further growth by roping in private equity partners. 

Star-studded leagues 

Ronaldo has been paving the way for high-profile footballers to play in the Middle East after he signed a deal with Al-Nassr in December to play for the club until 2025. According to AFP, he is set to receive the biggest salary in the history of the game: £177 million ($215 million) per year. When he joined Al-Nassr, the club had around 864k followers on Instagram, it currently has 15 million followers. 

In June, France’s Karim Benzema left Real Madrid and signed a three-year contract with SPL’s Al-Ittihad. He is expected to earn €200 million per season. Chelsea's N'Golo Kante has also joined Al-Ittihad on a three-year deal, for around £86 million a season. Even Ruben Neves, who spent six years with the Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers, has recently signed a deal worth £47 million with Al-Hilal. 

Many more PL players have been approached by the SPL teams. Why are players considering these offers? Simply put, the money. SPL clubs have no restrictions when it comes to spending. This means clubs can lure players with much higher salaries. Experts reckon that the four major teams—Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal—could attract close to 70,000 supporters for their home games if enough big stars are signed on. This would make it easier to sell and attract foreign TV rights and advertisers. 

 Also read: From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Middle Eastern countries are eyeing star footballers. Here's why

On the other end, Messi joined Inter Miami CF with a two-and-a-half year contract that could reportedly pay him between $50-60 million annually. Additionally, Apple TV has secured the exclusive global broadcast rights for the MLS—in a 10-year deal worth $2.5 billion. As part of Messi’s deal with MLS and Apple, he will be getting a cut of revenue from new subscribers to Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass, stated ESPN. 

Before Messi joined, the tickets for an Inter Miami match were as low as $30, now the cheapest tickets are for $330. Reports also suggest the club’s merchandise sales have increased by 4,500 percent and its Instagram account has reached 9 million followers, as compared to the earlier 1 million. 

Also read: Lionel Messi and his star power ready to rock the soccer club scene in America

But Messi isn’t the first high-profile player to play in the US. The league has also seen other star signings including Robbie Keane (joined LA Galaxy); Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy); David Villa (New York City FC) and Wayne Rooney (D.C. United) among many others. Rooney joined D.C. United in June 2018 as a Designated Player, and in 2022 was appointed head coach of the team. 

Even Brazilian legend Pelé came out of semi-retirement to sign a contract with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975. The league was operational till 1984. Later, MLS was formed.  

But a player who has minted millions from MLS is David Beckham, who stunned fans when he left Real Madrid in 2007 to sign up for MLS’ LA Galaxy. At the time, Beckham took a pay cut of 70 percent to join the league—trading his $20 million salary for a $6.5 million salary. Interestingly, he had a deal where he would earn a percentage of the team’s revenue—from merchandise to ticket sales. According to a YourStory report, “By the end of his five-year stint with the team, Beckham had made approximately $255 million, including his salary, endorsements, and revenue share.” 

Not only did Beckham benefit, MLS saw a huge surge in its valuation as well. Broadcast rights shot up, so did audience presence by close to 40 percent. In 2021, Beckham, along with Jorge and Jose Mas, bought Inter Miami FC. Post the buyout, reports suggest, Beckham’s stake increased from the earlier 10 percent to 30 percent in 2021. Ares Management also made a $150 million “preferred equity investment” in the club. In a short time, the club's valuation reached $585 million, making it the 10th most valuable MLS club.  

Some concerns 

The MLS is one of the top ten football leagues in the world. On the other end, SPL hopes to become one of the top ten football leagues in the world. However, one of the biggest concerns with both these leagues is that most call them “retirement leagues”. Reason? Most teams end up spending big bucks to sign on star players who are usually perceived to be “past their prime”, say experts. While this does help bring in a lot of revenue—broadcast, ticket sales and merchandise—improving the quality of football in these leagues is a challenge. Both these leagues have a lot of potential, but how they attract younger talent remains to be seen.