Lionel Messi says he plans to join Inter Miami, giving MLS a priceless boost
Lionel Messi is coming to the U.S.
To play soccer.
I know that reads like a mistake, but it’s true: The most decorated player in the sport’s history is taking his talents to South Beach, agreeing to a multiyear deal with Inter Miami of MLS. Messi even confirmed it himself.
“I made the decision that I’m going to go to Miami,” Messi said in Spanish in a brief video released Wednesday by Diario Sport, a Spanish sports daily. “I still haven’t finalized it 100%. We’re missing some things. But we’ve decided to continue on this path.”
It’s a path that could prove transformative for MLS, already the fasting-growing top-tier soccer league in the world.
Jorge Mas, Inter Miami’s CEO and managing owner, teased the announcement by posting a stylish picture of a No. 10 Inter Miami jersey — Messi’s number — on his social media account while the league released a cautiously optimistic two-sentence statement.
“We are pleased that Lionel Messi has stated that he intends to join Inter Miami CF and Major League Soccer this summer,” it read. “Although work remains to finalize a formal agreement, we look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our League.”
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MLS has more than doubled in size, from 12 to 30 teams, since David Beckham’s arrival in 2007 and expansion fees have gone from $10 million to half a billion dollars over that span. Last year MLS had the sixth-highest average attendance of any soccer league on the planet, and with the World Cup returning to North America in three years, the sport is primed to break through a crowded sports landscape in the U.S.
Messi will supercharge that push.
A seven-time world player of the year Messi, who will turn 36 later this month, led Argentina to its first World Cup title in 36 years last fall, bringing him the only major prize his resume was missing. In 17 seasons with Barcelona, he won 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League crowns while leading Europe’s top leagues in scoring six times. He spent the last two years in France, winning two league championship with Paris Saint-Germain, and his 806 goals for club and country ranks second all-time behind only Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barcelona, which failed in its attempt to lure Messi back for an encore, said club president Joan Laporta was informed of the player’s decision Monday. On Wednesday the team issued a statement of its own that appeared to belittle MLS, saying that it “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 player, who two years ago spent $7.2 million to buy the entire ninth floor of a luxury condo tower in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., seemed to back that view, telling the Spanish sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo that he “wanted to leave Europe, get out of the spotlight, and think more about my family.”
“After winning the World Cup and not being able to return to Barcelona, it was my turn to go to the league of the United States to live football in another way and to enjoy the day-to-day more,” he added.
The fact that a league with a salary cap was able to outbid the deep-pocketed Saudi Pro League, Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners and Barcelona, which Deloitte ranks as the seventh-richest club in the world, is astonishing. And it took a lot of creativity and cooperation from MLS and two of the league’s primary partners, Apple and Adidas, to get it done.
The financial details of Messi’s Inter Miami contract have not been released, but he reportedly earned a base salary of more $40 million a season in his two years with PSG and was offered $400 million a year to play in Saudi Arabia.
MLS teams have an annual payroll of $5.21 million. For the entire team. Messi would have made that much in less than a week in Riyadh.
But MLS permits teams to sign as many as three designated players to unlimited salaries, just a fraction of which applies to the cap. That rule was adopted in 2007 to allow the Galaxy to sign Beckham for a then-record $6.5 million a season.
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The league sweetened that offer by including a clause that allowed Beckham to buy an MLS expansion franchise for $25 million, an offer he accepted in 2013 when he joined the ownership group in Miami. With the signing of Messi, Beckham is altering the trajectory of MLS a second time. But with expansion fees now going for $500 million, the league had to find another way to finance the deal.
So MLS looked to its partners, according to league sources with knowledge of the negotiations not authorized to discuss them publicly. Apple, in the first season of a 10-year $2.5-billion agreement to carry league games on its Apple TV streaming platform, will help underwrite the contract as will Adidas, the league’s kit sponsor, which has worked with Messi since 2006. Both could benefit mightily from the signing with Apple, which announced Tuesday that it will be airing a four-part documentary series on Messi’s World Cup win last fall, anticipating a surge in international subscriptions to its MLS Season Pass package.
But it’s unlikely anyone will benefit from Messi’s decision more than MLS, which is getting a priceless boost in both attention and prestige.
The financial impact of the deal is already being felt in some corners of the league despite the fact it’s not even final yet: With Messi expected to make his MLS debut in July, the asking price for tickets to Inter Miami’s Sept. 3 game with LAFC at BMO Stadium topped $4,700 on the secondary market Wednesday afternoon.