A legend arrives in America, and with him the potential revolution of a league and the way we look at contract negotiations
Living in America, it sometimes gets overlooked just how popular of a sport soccer is on an international stage. I attended high school in Amman, Jordan and this rabid fandom was on full display one summer evening in 2004. It was the final of the UEFA European Championship between Greece and Portugal. I was with some family members at a local coffee shop and it was packed with factions of people rooting for each team. They were hanging on to every second, every play with tight fists and clenched jaws.
Many Americans might never understand this fascination, and as a result they don’t think too much of their own domestic league, the MLS, with much reverence. The MLS has made strides to try and change this and become more prominent with the average American sports fan. One way that they have attempted to do this is to lure aging stars from the bigger European leagues to ply their trade in the MLS. But now the league has caught its biggest fish, arguably the greatest player to play the game: Lionel Messi. His arrival to Inter Miami has the potential to be a game changer for the fortunes of the MLS and a marked shift in the way we look at contract negotiations in the future.
A Familiar Voyage
Getting a recognizable name from European soccer to come play in the MLS is not a new practice by any means. David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, and Wayne Rooney all came to the MLS when it appeared that their primes were dwindling. Beckham has parlayed his time in MLS into an ownership stake in Inter Miami, which was instrumental in bringing Messi stateside. Rooney excelled in MLS as a player and recently returned to DC United to become a coach. All of these players were legends in Europe at both the club and national team levels, but saw the US as a way to continue being marketed as stars while playing in a league with lesser competition. On the surface, it seems that Messi is simply doing the same thing by signing with Inter Miami as opposed to taking an obscene amount of money from Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal (in the neighborhood of $500M per year) or returning to the club where he dominated for the bulk of his career in FC Barcelona.
But Messi is still an elite player at 35 years of age. In France’s Ligue 1 for Paris Saint-Germain this past season Messi was 10th in the league in goals scored and first in assists. Even in PSG’s Champions League matches Messi played relatively well and showed that he still had what it took to compete in Europe at a high level. And that is what makes Messi coming to the MLS so fascinating. Even Ibrahimovic who went back to Europe after 2 years in MLS was basically written off as washed up before rejuvenating his reputation in Los Angeles.
But Messi would have had a few suitors in Europe, and instead he is in the MLS and instantly the best player in the league. With his arrival, the MLS became a league with a legitimate player with a reputation of excellence and trophies to match. In his career Messi has amassed:
7-time Ballon d’Or Winner (FIFA’s player of the year)
8-time La Lisa Best Player
4-time Champions League Winner
12-time Domestic League Champion in Spain and France
2-time UEFA Men’s Player of the Year
Many Americans have looked to find an equivalent hypothetical scenario to this. The closest that I can come up with is if this summer LeBron James decided to sign with a team in the Chinese league. It would shift the axis of power and immediately elevate that league to international prominence. And yet, that still does not feel like a good enough comparison. Simply, this is a huge get for the MLS and its aspirations as an elite league in this country.
Time to Tune In
If there was any doubt that a “Messi Effect” was a real thing, those doubts were dispelled when the social media and ticket price numbers for Inter Miami spiked overnight. The club gained 6 million new followers on Instagram and over a 1000% increase in ticket prices in the wake of Messi signing with the club. Soccer, much like the NBA, is a sport of star power. While there will always be a grassroots movement that appreciates the game, the true numbers come when elite global superstars are playing for the club.
For nearly the last two decades, the sport has been carried by the duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo decided to take the money from Saudi Arabia club Al-Nassr and marked the end of the duo's duel in Europe. Now the MLS is granted the privilege to employ one half of that equation. Especially in the United States, people will tune in to see this legend of the sport.
In some ways, this mirrors the American entry of a player that Messi has been compared to: Pele. When Pele was 34 years old he made the switch from Brazilian club Santos to join the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Pele’s arrival was a historic moment in the history of North American sports, with a record contract and giving visibility to a sport that was just starting in the United States. The success of the Cosmos from a societal perspective during Pele’s short tenure showed that a transcendent star can do wonders for a struggling league.
Messi arrives in the MLS in similar circumstances. The league is on the way up and has had improvements in terms of overall quality, but it is still not one that is taken seriously in international circles. In fact, I would say that the MLS ranks just slightly above the Chinese leagues in terms of notoriety. But now viewers have an attraction, a name that is recognizable to tune in for. And that will do wonders for the exposure of the MLS, something that Messi knows all too well and is taking advantage of.
Changing the Structure
Typically when a player moves leagues there are transfer terms that are agreed to and a salary is negotiated at the new club. Usually, this is purely a monetary discussion. But in the case of Lionel Messi, it is a little more complicated and a lot smarter than that. Inter Miami isn’t the only entity that is paying Messi’s contract, as Apple and Adidas are also involved, with Messi eyeing a future beyond his playing days.
Let’s start with the future options. As part of his agreement, Messi will have the option to purchase an ownership stake in an MLS franchise after he retires. Notably, David Beckham had a similar clause in his contract with the LA Galaxy when he came to the MLS in 2007, which allowed him to purchase his stake in Inter Miami. Messi appears to be following in the footsteps of many modern athletes to be a part of the ownership of the teams that we love after the end of their careers. We have seen iconic players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James purchase ownership stakes in teams, and this is something that will continue to be a trend.
Where things get interesting is the inclusion of Adidas and Apple. Adidas has been a partner with Messi and the MLS for many years. This is a convenient relationship as it is reported that some of the MLS merchandise that is sold during the terms of the contract will be diverted to Messi, which makes sense as most of the jerseys that will be sold are likely to be Messi’s. In addition to this, Messi is likely to be paid from Apple as well. The tech giant recently purchased the media rights to the MLS, and in a stroke of what can either be called tremendous luck or foresight, is in line to see their subscriber numbers balloon as a result. Since this will be driven by Messi as well, he will be getting a slice of this streaming revenue as a part of his contract.
With this deal, Messi is not only agreeing to play somewhere but is also setting himself up for business opportunities in both athletics merchandising and digital streaming. This deal with Apple will also include a documentary about the player's journey to the United States. The structure of this deal has the potential to be monumental for the way that contracts for the highest level players in the sports world are handled. It is my contention that the true legacy of a player like LeBron James is that he is a great businessman in addition to a tremendous player. We are seeing Lionel Messi execute a similar acumen of understanding the power of his personal brand as an international supernova.
This deal makes sense for Messi of course, but it is equally great for the MLS. The league is now in position to dominate ratings in the summer months when the only competition is baseball, a sport that has been struggling to resonate with many in younger generations. Now, with the arrival of Messi, there is a reason to tune into the MLS. This is a moment that we may remember as the one that caused soccer to elevate past the MLB and become the third most popular sport in the United States. And that is the true power of Lionel Messi and why many within the MLS were likely doing cartwheels when it was revealed that he was heading to Miami.