Lionel Messi: Will the Argentine’s transfer to Inter Miami revolutionize American football?
“I think Miami needs a star,” David Beckham remarked when his new Major League Soccer franchise was announced in 2018. “Miami would anticipate us bringing in a celebrity. That is exactly what we intend to do.”
Five years later, with Inter Miami in its fourth season of Major League Soccer, Beckham and co-owners Jorge and Jose Mas delivered the biggest star of them all. Arguably the greatest player in history. Lionel Messi, World Cup winner.
Messi might be a catalyst for the sport in the three years before the United States co-hosts the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico.
Prior to that, the United States will host the Copa America in 2024, which means Messi might not only play his final club game in the United States, but also his final major international tournament.
These are significant occasions for Messi, who will be 36 by the time he is eligible to play his first game for Miami, but they could be even more significant for football in the United States.
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The move is reminiscent of Beckham, who joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, and Pele, who was drawn to the American soccer package at the New York Cosmos in the former NASL in the 1970s.
Messi’s decision will be judged in part on the growth of soccer in America during his time there, whether he likes it or not. Bringing it to the forefront and center of the discourse in American athletics, rather than being an afterthought.
Messi’s level of influence will be determined by if his impact extends beyond the surface. Will the excitement fade when he departs, or will Messi’s magnetism see domestic soccer grow across the country?
Currently, the ‘Big Four’ major leagues in North American men’s professional sports are basketball (NBA), baseball (MLB), American football (NFL), and ice hockey (NHL).
MLS is not often regarded as seriously as these and is frequently treated as an afterthought in regular sports coverage, if at all.
However, since Messi’s announcement, it has been a regular main story. Nobody can ignore the biggest name in sports. It’s significant that this great name is also a soccer player.
The first stage of Messi’s American journey will be the anticipation of his arrival, when the impact he has on the game will be seen in real time. Inter Miami’s social media reach has already surpassed that of many NHL, MLB, and NFL teams.
Since Messi’s declaration, cumulative ticket sales for their games from July until the end of the season, which, unlike the European leagues, extends over a calendar year rather than two, have increased over 28-fold.
Tickets for last week’s NBA Finals in Miami cost less than those for Messi’s prospective Leagues Cup start against Cruz Azul. Team lineup announcements have already elicited a flood of comments, the most of which ask, ‘Where’s Messi?’
The move will benefit MLS, especially in the short term while Messi is there – but being good for MLS isn’t always synonymous with being good for American soccer. Much will be determined by how much of the excitement and attention reaches the grassroots.
This can be challenging when there is no connectivity between leagues at various levels throughout the country. There is no direct relationship from Pele’s NASL to Beckham and Messi’s MLS, and no link between MLS and the country’s other pro-soccer league, USL.
There is no promotion or relegation, which is beneficial to Miami, which was last in the Eastern Conference until Messi arrived.
If Messi’s impact on the sport in the United States is to extend beyond the league in which he plays, MLS may have to be more open to other soccer organizations working parallel to and below it – and it may gain from doing so.
Its laws and regulations have helped to build stronger foundations than past pro-soccer leagues, and single-entity single-mindedness has aided self-preservation, but it may now be time to loosen some of the shackles. Messi’s presence may encourage this.
To recruit Messi in the first place, the league required some wiggle room. A number of reasons, including a new broadcast contract with Apple TV beginning this season, a shared kit supplier in Adidas, and a Beckham-owned team in Miami – a place in which Messi owns property – have all contributed to favorable conditions.
It is natural that Beckham is the owner bringing Messi to MLS, given his emergence as a player transformed the game in 2007. To make it easier for Beckham to sign, the league instituted the ‘designated player rule,’ also known as the Beckham rule, which permits clubs to sign up to three players whose wages can exceed the salary ceiling.
Beckham’s rule now allows his team’s move for Messi, the details of which are yet to be revealed, although it will be more than just a conventional designated player contract, as predicted.
Messi’s bonuses will raise the bar for what MLS and its partners can offer a player. It will be similar to the historic arrangement made by NBA great Michael Jordan with Nike in 1984, when Nike took the extraordinary step of offering Jordan a portion of sales.
Along with deals with Adidas and Apple for a four-part documentary, there are rumors that Messi may acquire a team ownership stake, as well as a percentage of sign-ups to Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass.
MLS had to look outside the box to compete with the billions on offer in Saudi Arabia. If Messi’s presence is to transcend the league and have an impact on American soccer as a whole, MLS may need to look beyond the league.
It is hard for one individual to change the landscape of a sport in such a vast and diverse territory. Soccer is not unpopular in the United States; it is simply not as widely followed as it is in the rest of the world.
Fans may obsessively follow their country’s national team or a club from Europe or Mexico, but the structure of American club soccer on a national level does not elicit the same amount of public interest or dedication. boosting the popularity of soccer in the United States through Pele or Messi is not the same as boosting the popularity of the domestic game.
America has its own sports, including its own ‘football,’ which is based on the same wild 19th-century English activities as association football. Culturally catching up with them is a major task.
Even Pele couldn’t convert a nation of (American) football enthusiasts into a nation of soccer fans, though he and Beckham did lay the basis for Messi to try.
Messi’s arrival will result in increased attendance, global attention, and increased awareness of MLS, but for the impacts to be lasting in American soccer, something must be developed on the ground at a local level on the back of this momentous, magical transfer.