The deal

Tatler Asia, the organizer of Inter Miami’s disastrous pre-season match in Hong Kong, has confirmed it will refund fans 50% of the price of their tickets after the franchise’s talisman Lionel Messi failed to take part.

The Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise’s match in Hong Kong on February 4 was one of four played in three countries across Asia as part of the club’s first-ever international pre-season tour, sandwiched between stops in Saudi Arabia (versus Al-Hilal and Al Nassr) and Japan (Vissel Kobe).

However, Messi’s failure to play in the much-hyped friendly match against a put-together Hong Kong team sparked outrage across China, with fans demanding refunds and the Hong Kong government stepping in to criticize the club. The situation was compounded a few days later when he was able to play in Japan.

Around 40,000 fans attended the sold-out fixture, with some traveling 12 hours from Xianjing to Hong Kong and paying nearly HK$5,000 ($640) per ticket with the expectation that they would see Messi in action due to his presence being heavily advertised during the run-up to the match.

Tatler Asia’s decision to refund ticket holders comes after Hong Kong’s consumer council reportedly received 1,178 complaints about the match, with the organizer set to lose HK$43 million on the event, rather than gaining HK$13 million in profit.

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By GlobalData

The brand has also withdrawn its application to the government for a HK$16 million grant to fund the match.

In a statement, Tatler Asia said: “We apologize to all those who were disappointed by the football match between the Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami CF … but we are also heartbroken.

“We put our blood and sweat into bringing a world-class football match to Hong Kong and we were let down along with all of you.”

The detail

Inter Miami had hoped the tour would be the perfect preparation for their upcoming 2024 MLS campaign, while also giving their brand an international boost with Messi at the helm to ensure commercial success.

However, rather than gaining strong global PR and a few victories on the field, the tour had quite the opposite effect.

On the pitch, Inter Miami were unable to find their feet in Saudi Arabia, losing 4-3 to Al Hilal before a disastrous 6-0 loss to Al Nassr. They recovered by landing a 4-1 victory against a randomly assembled Hong Kong team before beating Vissel Kobe 4-3 in Japan.

But it was the drama that ensued after the Hong Kong match that derailed the ambitions of the trip and threatened wider commercial implications for the club and its talisman going forward.

Chants during the game appealing for Messi to get on the pitch turned to boos when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham made his post-game speech.

In a statement after the match, the Hong Kong government said: “Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organizers’ arrangement. The organizers owe all football fans an explanation.

Meanwhile, Messi’s subsequent appearance on the field in Japan a few days later threatened to escalate the situation into a diplomatic situation, with China’s state-controlled Global Times media printing an op-ed that said the incident “has gone far beyond the realms of sports.”

It said: “The match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi’s six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. The situation … has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”

Messi tried to calm the situation with a post earlier this week (February 7), describing the incident as “regrettable” and that he hoped to return to Hong Kong in the future.

However, the situation has continued to dominate Chinese social media and has so far shown no signs of slowing down.

Regina Ip, the convenor of Hong Kong’s executive council wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter Mami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.”

The team is due to return to China in March. It is unclear if the current situation will affect those plans.

The latest development has seen Argentina's friendly against Ivory Coast, scheduled to be held in Beijing in March, canceled by the Chinese city's football association.

Beijing's announcement came a day after Hangzhou's sports authorities also canceled a friendly between Argentina and Nigeria after the Messi debacle.

Why it matters

In one fell swoop, Inter Miami and Messi have managed to damage their reputation in one of the most lucrative markets in the world. And with Messi being the face of MLS, the implications of the alleged snub towards Hong Kong and China could be long-lasting for the league.

Financially, there has been no word from Inter Miami if they will contribute to Tatler Asia’s refunding of tickets and so far, explanations about players getting untimely injuries have not sated the baying crowd calling for retribution.

Hong Kong and China’s feelings have been hurt and if history is anything to go by, this will affect any future commercial dealings with the country.

Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis and consulting at Sporcal (GlobalData Sport), said: “Inter Miami's first-ever international tour can be seen to be the direct result of the 'Messi effect' – having the mercurial Argentine in the squad gives Inter Miami a marketing appeal few others can match.

“Utilizing the fanfare, Inter Miami have leveraged the newfound interest into games in Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Hong Kong, even using the tour to launch their new shirt ahead of the 2024 season. The fact that the shirt was launched with the team abroad as opposed to in their domestic market speaks volumes as to the marketing focus of the club.

“However, one market that is unlikely to be conquered by Inter Miami is China. Messi not making it off the bench for Miami's game against Hong Kong, has caused something akin to a diplomatic incident, with Chinese state media, local government, and fans on social media condemning Inter Miami and Messi given that he was the only reason many fans bought tickets and attended.

“As the NBA will attest, the long-term ramifications of upsetting China can be severe in financial terms, with China unlikely to forgive this snub, especially with Messi playing just days later in Japan.”

The team will now head home for their final warmup match on February 16 in Florida against Newell’s Old Boys, Messi’s boyhood club from Argentina before starting their MLS campaign.