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Why you still might see empty seats at DRV PNK Stadium when Messi plays

Following Lionel Messi’s public announcement on June 7 that he would join Inter Miami, the demand for tickets to their matches has surged, escalating prices to a level unparalleled for MLS. 

A Forbes report on July 18 revealed that the average ticket price for an Inter Miami match (home or away) had increased by 500%, with the cheapest ticket for Messi’s July 21 Leagues Cup debut against Liga MX side Cruz Azul priced at $325. 

The average ticket price for the Cruz Azul game was $830, according to Forbes. Before Messi’s debut, fans could attend an Inter Miami game for as little as $29. 

Messi’s debut at Miami’s DRV Pink Stadium in Fort Lauderdale was a sellout. Inter Miami’s temporary ground was quickly expanded from holding 19,000 fans to 21,000 in order to accommodate a bit more of the sudden new demand for tickets. That night, the lowest priced ticket on the secondary market was $1,294, while the most expensive front row midfield seats sold for $23,737. Even more staggering, the most expensive ticket on the night, according to multiple reports, exceeded $110,000. 

Shocking prices, for sure — particularly for a club that was at the bottom of MLS in average attendance in 2022 and near the bottom before Messi’s arrival so far this season. But if the assumption was that Messi’s arrival would guarantee home sellouts from his first match through the foreseeable future, Miami’s very next game proved otherwise. 

The club’s 4-0 win over Atlanta United during a midweek Leagues Cup match four days later did not sell out. Total attendance on that night, in which Messi scored twice and provided an assist, was 19,758. Ticket prices before kickoff ranged between $220-$280. 

Since that match, ticket prices for Inter Miami home games have dropped steadily. Two days after the Atlanta United game, the cheapest ticket for the round of 32 Leagues Cup match against Orlando City was listed at $105 on Ticketmaster. On Wednesday, four hours before kickoff, that price rose to $160. The most expensive available seat, in the stadium’s 101 section, was listed at $1,030. 

However, during the lightning delay that postponed the start of the match on Wednesday, Ticketmaster had one ticket in section 111 listed at $73. A new low. Inter Miami uses a dynamic pricing strategy to continuously adjust ticket prices based on market demands. Prices can fluctuate in a matter of minutes. 

Teams across all major sports have used dynamic pricing for over a decade. Commercial airlines also employ this strategy (consider the difference between booking travel months in advance versus purchasing an airline ticket last minute). 

Dynamic pricing considers metrics that are referred to as value-added factors, such as demand for the event, time of day in which the event will take place and how well that event can be viewed from specific seats or sections of the stadium. Ayca Kaya, an associate professor of economics at the University of Miami’s Herbert Business School, assessed how Inter Miami has implemented this pricing strategy.  

“(Dynamic pricing) allows the seller to price discriminate, i.e. charge different prices to different segments of the market if those in different segments have different preferences towards advance purchases,” Kaya told The Athletic via email. “In the case of Inter Miami, Messi’s unexpected arrival clearly had a huge impact on the soccer fans’ willingness to pay for their games, and dynamic pricing allowed (Inter Miami) to take advantage of this.”

After paying so much to bring Messi to South Florida, it’s to be expected that Inter Miami would try to recoup that investment as best they can. And for his part, Messi has instantly delivered more than the club could have asked for — including a cinematic late winner in his debut, Messi has started his Inter Miami stint by scoring five goals in three games. Inter Miami, currently sitting in last place in MLS play, has won every Leagues Cup match they’ve played with Messi, hosting a different crop of pitchside celebrities each time. 

When Inter Miami travels for away matches, opposing team owners will also benefit. As The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio reported, the Chicago Fire and Atlanta United, for example, are expecting sell-out crowds for their upcoming matches against Inter Miami. Chicago could pull in an additional $7-10 million in revenue for their October 4 matchup against Miami. Atlanta United, which plays at the 71,000-seat capacity Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is expected to enjoy $4 million in additional game day revenue on September 16. 

For Messi’s first road trip — Sunday’s Leagues Cup round of 16 match at FC Dallas — tickets sold out in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, attendance for Inter Miami’s 3-1 Leagues Cup win over rivals Orlando City on Wednesday night was listed at 20,181. A strong turnout, but not quite a total sellout. A torrential rainstorm before kickoff and the midweek timing may have been factors, but interest in Inter Miami tickets is still growing, even as some remain unsold. 

According to Google search data commissioned by JeffBet, internet searches for ‘Inter Miami tickets’ after Wednesday’s win skyrocketed by 2,127% when compared to the previous seven days. With that high interest level, don’t expect prices to decrease anytime soon. 

But should empty seats be a concern for Inter Miami? 

“This depends on the demand conditions,” Kaya said. “Naturally, if Inter Miami sets sufficiently low prices, it can eliminate the empty seats. The question is how low they need to go to achieve these additional sales and whether it is worth selling all tickets at this low price as opposed to selling fewer tickets at much higher prices.” 

Kaya added that Inter Miami likely has market research that details the size of their potential customer base. That includes how price sensitive those customers are, or as Kaya defined it, “the elasticity of the demand for its tickets.” 

Inter Miami declined to comment on the topic of ticket pricing. 

“If Inter Miami estimates that the clientele is not very price sensitive so that an increase in prices does not reduce the sales too much, or on the flip side a decrease in prices does not increase sales too much, then it is optimal to set high prices while keeping idle capacity,” Kaya explained.

“Even though the size of the clientele versus the size of the stadium may have a bearing on this, the main reason why tickets don’t sell out is probably the strategic pricing behavior by Inter Miami, tying into the discussion above. Specifically, this suggests that the soccer fans in South Florida are pretty price-insensitive and thus Inter Miami optimally keeps the prices high even though this means not selling out all the seats.”

South Florida has its own distinctive economic and demographic characteristics. It’s a cultural hotbed for soccer in America, but a region where MLS has failed previously (both the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny ceased operations in the early 2000s). Messi’s arrival has suddenly awoken a soccer city that had fallen dormant. 

South Florida is also perceived to be a fickle sports town. Empty seats are common at Major League Baseball, NFL and NBA games. However, there’s a portion of the population that’s willing to pay premium prices to watch the world’s best soccer player. Even now while Inter Miami plays its home matches 30 miles away in Fort Lauderdale

“South Florida, because of its demographics, is probably the area of the U.S. that has the largest proportion of soccer fans who would very highly value Messi’s star power,” Kaya said. “Such strong preferences often make the demand insensitive to price changes, as long as one can afford to purchase.”

That last point is an important one, Kaya said. Affluence is a contributing factor of demand elasticity, since, generally, the more money you have, the less price sensitive you’ll be. For Inter Miami fans whose checking account balance is a cause for concern, paying to see Messi is a significant expense. 

“Income inequality in South Florida is notoriously large,” said Kaya. “The affluent segment of South Florida residents is among the richest in the nation. The low-income segment is sadly among the poorest and would be unlikely to be swayed by Messi’s presence to purchase soccer tickets, unless the prices are very low.”

Kaya’s conclusion is that Inter Miami’s optimal pricing strategy “likely targets only the affluent segment” at the expense of some empty seats.  

(Photo: Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images)

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