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Lionel Messi’s Impact On The MLS

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Last updated 16/04/2024

Lionel Messi’s Impact On The MLS

Lionel Messi completed football nine months ago when he lifted the World Cup trophy for his country for what was the first time since 1986, essentially cementing his legacy as the greatest football player of all time. But after achieving the highest of career highs on that December day in Lusail, what was next for Messi?

After all, he had just won arguably the biggest and greatest prize in football, and the only one that had eluded him throughout his career. What was there left for him to do now?

The Argentine would go on to finish the rest of the campaign with PSG at club-level, helping the Parisian side to what was a 9th French league title since the turn of the century. An announcement that he would be leaving the club in the summer following the expiry of his contract soon followed to cap off what was, in all honesty, a pretty underwhelming stint at the club. So, where would Messi go next?

There were rumblings about a potential move back to the Nou Camp with Barcelona, but that looked unlikely considering Barcelona’s well-documented financial problems, which were the reason why Messi left the Catalan side in the first place. There was also heavy talk of the Argentine making the move to the Middle East to join the newly-moneyed Saudi Pro League, where all manner of European stars were jetting off to. Cristiano Ronaldo was already there with Al-Nassr, and securing Messi would have been a huge coup for the league and would have guaranteed many more eyeballs on the developing division.

That is why Al-Hilal reportedly offered him a one-year deal worth an eye-watering £354m, but ultimately, Messi would turn that offer down. Messi himself believed that he could still compete at the highest levels of European football for at least another season, but ultimately, his options were very limited. Barcelona, the one club that Messi would have happily joined, were not able to produce a suitable financial offer that would satisfy both Messi and La Liga itself, while basically every other club in Europe couldn’t afford him.

Therefore, there was just one other option still available to the player, and while it was a rumour that had been bubbling along in the background quietly for some time, it was a rumour that no one had ever taken seriously. But in mid-July, the shock announcement dropped.

Lionel Messi had decided to make the move across the Atlantic to join MLS side Inter Miami in the United States of America. The greatest football player of all time would be joining a club that had a stadium capacity of just over 20,000 seats, and had only been founded in January of 2018, a mere two months before the birth of Messi’s third child. It was somewhat surreal. But as you would expect with Messi, his impact at the club, and on the league as a whole, has been immediate…

Messi’s debut for his new club was slated for the 21st of July against Mexican side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, but before he even first kicked a ball for his new side, he had already made a furore on social media. Pictures of the 36-year-old being spotted doing some grocery shopping at supermarket chain Publix went viral, with some lucky fans being able to snap pictures with the man himself. And then the famous Hard Rock Café named a chicken sandwich after him, with the “Messi Chicken Sandwich” being inspired by Messi’s love of Milanese. But now, the football…

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The Sporting Side

Critics might have thought that they had easy ammunition when the news of Messi’s move stateside broke, with many now able to claim that his move to America was no different to Cristiano Ronaldo’s decision to move to Saudi Arabia. But, Messi has definitely shut those critics up, because his impact on Inter Miami has been significant – and his time at the club so far has gone better than surely anyone could have ever expected.

Thanks to Messi, Inter Miami have gone from being one of the laughing stocks of the entire MLS, to now arguably being one of the MLS’ must-watch sides. The mercurial Argentine has already cemented his legacy at the club by playing a huge part in delivering their first-ever piece of silverware, and it took Messi just seven games to do so.

Messi’s first touch of a ball in an Inter Miami shirt came in the Leagues Cup, a 2019-founded tournament that has now developed into a competition in which all MLS and Liga MX (Mexican top-flight) teams participate in, with the two respective leagues pausing their domestic campaigns in order to partake. Inter Miami faced off against Cruz Azul in their inaugural match of the tournament on the 22nd July, with Messi making his debut in the 55th minute of the match with the score at 1-1. The match ticked into stoppage-time with the scores still level, but then Inter Miami won a free-kick.

There was obviously only going to be one taker of said free-kick. So in trademark style, and with the clock hitting 93:46, Messi stepped up to sumptuously place his dead-ball effort past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net to send the home crowd absolutely wild. It was perfect, it was fairytale-esque – coming in stoppage time, on his debut for his new club, coming via a pinpoint free-kick that he has become so famous for throughout his career. The camera’s pan to a fan in the stands who had his hands on his head in what was either sheer disbelief or joy told you everything you needed to know. Just when you thought there was nothing else that Messi could do to shock you, he produces something that does.

Miami’s next Leagues Cup game was against fellow MLS side Atlanta United, and Messi scored two and assisted one in a 4-0 win to see Miami through to the knockout stages of the tournament. Their round-of-32 match against Orlando City saw Messi bag 2 goals in a 3-1 win, while he bagged another brace in a 4-4 draw with FC Dallas that Inter eventually won on penalties. Messi was slightly more subdued with just the one goal in a 4-0 win over Charlotte FC in the quarter-finals, before scoring once more in a 4-1 win in the semi-finals over Philadelphia Union. It meant that Inter Miami were in the final of the Leagues Cup, and they would be facing off against Nashville SC in a match that would see either side emerging with what would be a first-ever major honour in their history.

It was, of course, Messi himself who would open the scoring in the final on the 24-minute mark, but the game would eventually be decided on penalties. The two sides would slug it out over 11 rounds of penalties, but it would be Messi’s Miami who would ultimately triumph, winning 10-9 on the night. It had only been just under a month, but over the course of seven matches, Lionel Messi had scored 10 goals, produced moments of magic that would be seen and talked about by millions online, and delivered Inter Miami a first-ever trophy in their history.

Messi’s next game for Miami following the conclusion of the Leagues Cup was a clash against FC Cincinnati in the semi-final of the US Open Cup, a game that saw Messi contribute 2 assists as Miami won 5-4 on penalties following a 3-3 draw in regular time. It means that Miami are now in a second final (due to be played against Houston Dynamo on the 27th of September), and the club could very well be lifting a second piece of silverware in the space of just over a month.

The game following that semi-final win was Messi’s first actual league game for his new club, with Miami taking on the New York Red Bulls on the 27th of August. And once again, a moment of Messi magic that helped his side secure the win did the rounds on social media, with the video clip of Messi’s involvement in Miami’s second goal of the match garnering almost 13m views on the official MLS Twitter account. With the clock ticking past the 88th minute, a floated ball over to Jordi Alba on the edge of the box from midfield saw the full-back do well to acrobatically hook the ball over to Messi, who evaded an onrushing defender before pulling out a barely believable, exquisitely weighted trivela pass to Benjamin Cremaschi.

Cremaschi did well to find the cut-back, which was duly finished off by Messi in what was a fine team goal, and yet another barely believable moment of footballing artistry by the man. Following that win, it meant that in the nine matches Messi had played in since joining Inter Miami, they had won all nine. In the nine matches prior to Messi’s arrival, Miami had lost six and won 0. The GOAT effect?

The Financial Side

But of course, Messi’s impact has not been limited to just on the field. Financially, both Messi and the league itself will benefit from his move to America. Messi’s contract reportedly includes huge commercial incentives related to two of MLS’ biggest commercial partners, Adidas and Apple.

The league recently signed an exclusive 10-year deal with Apple worth a reported $2.5bn to broadcast all of its top-flight matches on the company’s new streaming service Apple TV+, according to The Athletic. Messi is set to receive a share of the revenue generated by new signups and subscribers to this service, which is called the MLS Season Pass, while also having a similar arrangement with Adidas (who signed Messi to a lifetime contract in 2017), with Messi set to receive a cut of profits from the company who are the league’s kitwear, footwear and ball sponsor.

Furthermore, there are also reports that, akin to David Beckham all the way back in 2007 when he joined the league, Messi has been given an option to purchase a part-ownership share in a team at the end of his contract. The next couple of years are certainly set to be very lucrative ones for the Argentine.

But the league itself will also benefit. For example, following the announcement of Messi’s signing, Inter Miami’s social media followings exploded. Their Instagram following shot up from a number in the hundreds of thousands to it now sitting at 15.2m. The first 24 hours of Inter Miami shirts with Messi printed on them going on sale reportedly made it the best-selling sports jersey in history, according to sportswear retailer Fanatics, beating out NFL star Tom Brady’s move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United.

Ticket prices for upcoming matches subsequently shot through the roof, and those fixtures sold out very quickly. This is important when you consider that the average revenue for an MLS team last year was reported to be around $57m, which pales in comparison to the figures that the NBA ($308m per club), NHL ($187m per club) and NFL ($545m per club) teams make. S

Subscriptions to the Season Passes on Apple TV+ have doubled since Messi’s arrival, and more eyeballs on games means that there is a much higher chance of new commercial partners wanting to get in on the action as well. Major brands would love access to the markets that Messi has access to, and already, there have been instances of many celebrities being spotted at Miami games. In Inter Miami’s 3rd September clash with Los Angeles FC, in what some outlets described as the most star-studded football match ever, well-known faces such as actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Gerard Butler and Connie Britton, Selena Gomez, basketball star LeBron James, Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, and even British royalty in Prince Harry were spotted in the stands.

And Inter Miami are not the only team benefitting from all this – all the other teams in the league will be able to get in on the action. For example, Miami’s October clash away at Chicago Fire has been estimated to generate potentially as much as $10m in revenue on the day, which could end up being a single-game record for the league.

And with Messi’s contract at the club running until 2025, that presents a further opportunity for the league. The USA will be hosting the 2024 Copa America, the 2025 Club World Cup, and then co-host the World Cup in 2026 alongside Canada and Mexico. The opportunity to have Messi play in a World Cup on American soil will surely have investors and corporations eager to capitalise on the inevitable World Cup fever that will be springing up by then. If America cannot shed the image and reputation of the MLS as a “retirement home” by then, then will it ever? With the greatest football player of all time on their books for the next couple of years, this is the best possible chance to finally do just that.

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