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Messi to Miami: How MLS, Apple and Adidas rallied to bring a soccer icon to America

After being heavily linked with a move to Saudi Arabia, Lionel Messi announced this week that he will instead link up with David Beckham at Inter Miami. SportsPro breaks down the unprecedented commercial incentives reportedly included in the deal and analyses the impact the arrival of the Argentinian great could have on MLS and soccer in the US.

8 June 2023 Sam Carp

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So the United States it is for Lionel Messi, who confirmed this week that he plans to join David Beckham’s Inter Miami in Major League Soccer (MLS).

For weeks it had looked like the Argentinian was destined for Al Hilal, who had reportedly offered the 35-year-old an eye-watering US$400 million a year to join his old foe Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia and follow an avalanche of superstars who are jetting off to the kingdom for one lucrative last payday.

For once, though, Saudi Arabia has missed out. In a week where the country essentially became the most powerful entity in professional golf, its Public Investment Fund (PIF) took control of four domestic soccer clubs, and Karim Benzema became the first of several star names expected to arrive in the kingdom this summer, Inter Miami and MLS pulled off the unlikeliest of heists.

But what was it about their offer that made one of, if not the, greatest to ever play the game choose the US over the Middle East? As the dust starts to settle, SportsPro breaks down the unprecedented deal and its implications, and looks at the role MLS, its broadcast partner Apple and sponsor Adidas have played in helping Inter Miami convince Messi to join.

How did we get here?

Messi had long been expected to finish his career at Barcelona, the Spanish soccer team he joined as a boy before winning every trophy there was to win, becoming their record goalscorer in the process. However, Messi was forced to bid a tearful farewell to the LaLiga club in 2021 after it had become apparent that his long-term employers could no longer afford to keep him against a backdrop of spiralling debts and financial mismanagement.

Messi bid a tearful farewell to Barcelona in 2021

Step forward Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, who added Messi to a star-studded lineup that already included his former Barcelona teammate Neymar and Frenchman Kylian Mbappe, who many have christened as heir to Messi’s throne as the best player in the world.

PSG had an option to extend Messi’s initial two-year contract for another season but announced in May that he would be leaving the Parc des Prince this summer after contributing 32 goals in 75 games for the club.

The expectation was that Messi would depart for Saudi Arabia, which already counts the seven-time Balon d’Or winner as a tourism ambassador. In fact, the forward was suspended by PSG earlier this season for taking an unauthorised trip to the country for promotional purposes, an excursion which only fuelled speculation that he would be heading to the kingdom this summer.

A return to Barcelona was also considered a possibility but it always seemed unlikely that the Catalan club would be able to fund an ambitious move to bring its former captain back to the Nou Camp because of LaLiga’s financial fair play (FFP) restrictions.

Then there was Inter Miami, who had been tipped to move for Messi for some time but felt like an outside bet because of his loyalties to Barcelona and the contract on offer from Saudi Arabia. However, in a brief, exclusive interview on Wednesday with Spanish outlets Mundo Deportivo and Sport, Messi revealed that his intention was to link up with Beckham in south Florida.

“I have taken the decision to go to [Inter] Miami,” he said. “It’s still not closed 100 per cent, there are a few final details left, but that’s the decision we have made.”

A bite of the Apple

The financial details of Messi’s contract with Inter Miami have yet to emerge, but various reports suggest that MLS and its commercial partners have played a key role in convincing the Argentinian to go to the US.

MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Athletic in March that the league was willing to “run every opportunity” to help Inter Miami sign who he described as “the most special player in the history of the game”, suggesting that the competition might be willing to make similar concessions to those which helped LA Galaxy land Beckham in 2007.

According to multiple reports, Messi’s deal includes an option to purchase a stake in an MLS club when his playing days are over, mirroring a clause in Beckham’s LA Galaxy contract that gave him the right to buy an expansion team for as little as US$25 million.

Messi in MLS would also have been an attractive proposition for Apple, which is in the first year of a ten-year, US$2.5 billion deal to broadcast the league globally. It is not known how many people have so far signed up to the streaming giant’s Season Pass subscription offering, but there are few better marketing tools than one of the best players in the world to drive new users to the platform.

To that end, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that Messi will receive a cut of all new subscriptions to the league’s Apple streaming service, which is free to MLS team season ticket holders but otherwise costs as much as US$14.99 per month or US$99.99 for a full year. Apple TV+ also revealed on Tuesday that Messi is set to be the subject of a new four-part documentary series – an announcement whose timing may not have been a coincidence.

In his interview with The Athletic in March, Garber said that teams have the ability to do “unique things” in terms of player contracts, but added: “MLS is a single entity. If you’re selling something that the collective owns, the collective has to approve that.”

If reports about the Apple clause are true, Garber’s comments suggest that MLS clubs had to agree to it. To put that into context, it would be akin to every team in LaLiga making allowances for Barcelona to make a marquee signing.

Messi has a lifetime contract with Adidas, which supplies kits for all MLS teams

Stars and stripes

Another unlikely element of the deal involves Messi’s long-time sponsor Adidas, which first partnered with the World Cup winner in 2006 before signing him to a lifetime contract in 2017. Crucially, the sportswear giant is also a major partner of MLS and has been supplying kits for all of its teams since 1996.

Messi has been playing in Nike kits for his entire club career, so the opportunity to have him appearing exclusively in Adidas gear for the foreseeable future certainly suited the German company.

Indeed, several outlets say that Messi’s Inter Miami contract will include a profit-sharing clause with Adidas, which will reportedly hand over some of the money made from kit sales driven by his move to MLS.

That income could be substantial based on what happened after Messi’s transfer to PSG. The club reportedly sold more than one million shirts during the 2021/22 season, 60 per cent of which adorned the name of its new signing.

What has the reaction been?

Messi is hardly short on cash. Forbes ranks him as the second highest-paid athlete in the world with total earnings of US$130 million a year, half of which is said to come from endorsements. When breaking the news of his decision to Spanish media, though, Messi insisted money was never the deciding factor.

“If it had been a matter of money I would have gone to [Saudi] Arabia or elsewhere,” he said. “It seemed like a lot of money to me and the truth is that my decision went another way and not for money.”

Messi also revealed he had an offer from another club in Europe but if he stayed on the continent it would have only been to return to Barcelona, who released a statement wishing him luck at Inter Miami.

‘President [Joan] Laporta understood and respected Messi’s decision to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the spotlight and the pressure he has been subject to in recent years,’ the statement read.

Stopping short of announcing Messi as their player, Inter Miami teased his arrival with a video compiling screengrabs of social media posts and articles asserting that he was destined for elsewhere. Perhaps tellingly, MLS made a more formal announcement, stating that it was ‘pleased’ with Messi’s decision.

‘Although work remains to finalise a formal agreement, we look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our league,’ a statement read.

What does it mean for MLS, Inter Miami and soccer in North America?

Messi said part of his motivation to join Inter Miami was to experience soccer in a different place – it will be the first time he has played the club game outside of Europe – and to “step out of the spotlight a bit”, but he is unlikely to be afforded that in a market with a unique celebrity culture and where the sport is on the rise.

MLS’s designated player rule – which allows teams to sign up to three players outside their salary cap and was essentially introduced to enable LA Galaxy to sign Beckham – has helped it to attract a handful of stars nearing the twilight of their careers, ranging from Andrea Pirlo and David Villa to Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But not since Beckham himself has MLS been able to lure a player capable of driving both domestic and international interest in the way that Messi will. Indeed, the potential impact he could have on soccer in the US, even as he nears retirement, shouldn’t be understated.

The early signs point to what is to come. Ticket prices for Inter Miami matches have already skyrocketed. Forbes reports that the cheapest ticket for the team’s Leagues Cup fixture against Mexican outfit Cruz Azul on 21st July, which is rumoured to be Messi’s first game, has soared from US$29 to US$459. It’s a similar story for what could be his MLS debut against New York Red Bulls on 26th August, with prices leaping from US$30 to US$512.

Some US media outlets have also wondered whether other MLS clubs might move games against Inter Miami to bigger stadiums to cash in on the demand for tickets. The majority of team stadiums have capacity for 20,000 to 30,000 supporters and Messi’s soon-to-be employers themselves currently play at a temporary home in Fort Lauderdale, which hosts just 18,000 spectators.

That will give Inter Miami something to think about, but the club – and perhaps MLS at large – can expect heightened interest from brands desperate to gain access to one of the most marketable athletes on the planet. According to  Argentinian outlet El Economista, PSG added ten new sponsors after signing Messi, with the value of those deals ranging from €3 million to €8 million apiece.

Messi is linking up with David Beckham, who kicked off the trend of international stars playing in MLS

Apple, meanwhile, will be hoping that its reported role in the deal pays off and Messi helps boost MLS viewership in the same way he did upon arriving in Paris. His PSG debut against Reims was watched by an average audience of 2.2 million on Mediaset-owned commercial channel Telecinco, representing the largest-ever audience for a Ligue 1 game in Spain. Having Messi play games on a time zone more in line with his native Argentina might also have a positive impact on Season Pass subscriptions in that country and the wider South American market.

Broadcast aside, Messi brings with him a huge social media following, including 469 million followers on Instagram. Reports say his PSG departure has already resulted in the club’s Instagram account losing two million followers, who are now likely to redirect their attention to his new employers.

It also doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest that other big names in soccer might now view MLS as a more viable destination for their careers, with journalist Fabrizio Romano already reporting that Inter Miami are weighing up a move for Messi’s international teammate Ángel Di María.

Either way, all of that will build momentum ahead of the 2026 Fifa World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico. Messi is likely to become something of an unofficial spokesperson for that tournament and lucrative endorsement offers from US-based brands could be forthcoming.

Beyond that, though, simply being able to say that Messi chose the US over anywhere else is something that will elevate the credibility of soccer in North America as it enters a crucial period. That is something Inter Miami and MLS can’t put a price on.

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