Lionel Messi is very good at soccer. One of the greatest of all time, and without doubt one of the most ‘must see’ players over the past 20 years, Messi has dominated world soccer, and his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo has made both elevate their game to levels previously unimaginable.
Comparisons between the two are rather futile – we have simply lived through a period of dominance by two athletes that is unlike anything ever seen before. In most sports, generational talents typically come along one at a time.
There may be a crossover between eras, like with Kareem Abdul-Jabber and Magic Johnson in the NBA, but Magic’s main rival was Larry Bird, not Kareem. Michael Jordan was unmatched for over a decade, while LeBron James has dominated multiple generations by virtue of his longevity.
Tom Brady dispatched two Mannings and Drew Brees, while the likes of Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt simply stood alone on the running track. Only in tennis can it be argued that the greatest of all time all played each other, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic all competing against one another at the top end for years.
What Messi and Ronaldo achieved is unlikely to be seen again, but all good things must come to an end. Ronaldo has decamped to Saudi Arabia, part of the PR exercise that will likely result in the awarding of the 2034 World Cup to the oil-rich nation, while Messi, like LeBron, took his talents to South Beach. And thus created a problem.
It is difficult to accurately contextualize how much of an impact Messi has had on the game of soccer. For a generation, 100,000 people packed into the Camp Nou to watch him play, adored by the Blaugrana faithful. Across Europe, Barcelona games were a sellout, watching Messi win seven Balon d’Or awards.
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He is Barcelona’s record goal scorer while helping the club to secure four Champions League titles. After an uninspiring stint with Paris Saint Germain, where his club did not reach the heights to which he had become accustomed, Messi went looking for a new challenge.
While he could have easily joined his erstwhile rival Ronaldo in Saudi, Messi went to conquer the other side of the world and joined MLS outfit Inter Miami. Messi signed a two-and-a-half-year contract in Miami, worth up to $150 million, which includes his salary, signing bonus, and equity in the team. However, Messi not only has equity in the team, but the entire league.
Apple signed a 10-year, $2.5 billion exclusive deal for worldwide rights to MLS which began at the start of the 2023 season, while adidas holds league-wide kit supply rights through 2030, worth over $130 million annually.
To get Messi over to the US, MLS is subsidizing his contract with equity from both deals, which will make the Argentinian superstar even richer than he already is.
The immediate results were undeniable – every Inter Miami game is sold out, and ticket prices on the secondary market for Messi’s first matches increased by 1000%.
Google searches for Inter Miami rose by 1,200%, while Gene Cook, vice president of global collectibles at eBay said: “When Lionel Messi announced his move to Inter Miami, searches for his collectibles — spanning trading cards and memorabilia — increased over 75% the following day on eBay … globally.”
Inter Miami have been Fanatics‘ top-selling MLS club, selling 50% more merchandise than their closest rival. Inter Miami’s managing owner Jorge Mas has said that he expects Messi’s arrival to double the club’s revenue and value, while Apple TV saw MLS season pass numbers increase from 700,000 subscribers in early June to nearly a million by the time Messi made his debut in July.
So, what is the problem? In a word, sustainability. Prior to Messi’s arrival, the lowest-priced ticket was $29. But as soon as it was clear that Messi was on his way to America, the cheapest ticket available was reportedly for $544.
Compare this to the local NFL franchise, the Miami Dolphins, where the lowest price ticket is approximately $125. This immediately prices out fans at the lower end of the spectrum, which is ironic given soccer’s working-class roots.
The local Miami area is one of the most affluent in America, but conversely, the lower-income community in South Florida is among the most impoverished in the US. While this is great for Mas and his partners, such as David Beckham, it certainly isn’t great for the long-term future of MLS.
While all eyes are on Messi, those eyes belong to Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian, as opposed to the next Messi. Ultimately, this isn’t going to grow the game in Miami or anywhere else in the US.
Pre Messi, Inter Miami had the lowest average attendance in the league among the 28 member teams, with an average crowd of 12,821 at the DRV PNK Stadium which has a current capacity of 21,000. Prior to Messi’s arrival, the capacity of the venue was just 18,000.
The Florida-based side are currently constructing a brand new 26,000-seater stadium – Miami Freedom Park – positioned next to Miami International Airport, which will no doubt have been factored in to shuttle all the celebrities coming to watch Messi.
The only flaw in that plan is that Messi is 36, and his contract expires in 2025 when the new venue is due to open.
While Messi is undoubtedly a class apart given the standard of the league at present, will he still have the appetite to keep slicing through MLS defenses at close to 39 years old?
Inter Miami are capitalizing on Messi Mania, as well they should. Sponsors and fans are flocking to get a piece of the action but long term, there is no way to build on this and certainly no way to replicate it. There is no other Messi, no one else who will generate this level of interest and fervor.
A good example of this is a recent Inter Miami game against Chicago Fire – 62,124 people attended the game, with tickets trading for thousands on the secondary market in the hope of seeing Messi.
In comparison, the Fire’s average attendance for the 2022 season was just 16,034. Sadly, Messi was injured and didn’t make the trip to Chicago for the game the Fire won 4-1.
While the club has made the best of a bad situation, giving fans a $250 credit towards a season ticket or a $50 credit to a single game, hoping to keep the interest of those fans and convert them into Fire devotees in the long term, there would have been obvious disappointment.
The credit idea is a solid plan and one that may generate some conversions in the short and long term, but however you look at it, Messi was the hook to get those fans. Without him, what is the long-term plan for MLS to convert the short-term excitement into long-term growth?
There is no argument that MLS is growing. Based on social media followings, it is the seventh most popular soccer league in the world behind the top five European leagues and Liga MX and is the fifth most followed competition in the US behind the four traditional US sports leagues.
With the 2026 World Cup on the horizon, there is no question that soccer’s popularity in North America will continue to increase. The challenge MLS has is to ensure that interest remains high once Messi hangs up his boots and is able to build on the eyeballs he has already brought to the league.