The Messi Effect: New Miami star brings big business to MLS

Inter Miami CF, saddled with a regular-season winning percentage just above 41% four years into their existence, have never been more popular. Such is Messi Mania — the transfer saga, the belabored unveiling, the Leagues Cup debut and his dominance-in-progress — seemingly destined to divide league history into pre-and-post “Pulga” as Miami surrounds the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner with fellow former Barcelona tiki-taka alumni.

“The future of soccer in America is so bright,” Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said in an Adidas news conference on the eve of Lionel Messi’s debut with the MLS club. “I’ve seen the growth of it over the last 10, 15 years … Bringing someone like [Messi] not just to Inter Miami, but to MLS, to America, it means so much. You have the eyes of not just Latina America, but the world on Miami.”

When the news broke that soccer’s all-time greatest talent would be taking his talents to South Beach — after almost four years of courtship — Inter Miami’s global popularity, as far as Google searches go, increased by more than 1,200%.

“When Lionel Messi announced his move to Inter Miami,” said Gene Cook, vice president of global collectibles at eBay, “searches for his collectibles — spanning trading cards and memorabilia — increased over 75% the following day on eBay … globally.”

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Ticket prices on the secondary market for Messi’s first Miami matches catapulted more than 1,000%. On July 20, the eve of Messi’s debut, the average ticket price for the Leagues Cup match against Liga MX’s Cruz Azul was $712, according to TicketSmarter. According to Vivid Seats, the average ticket price for the Cruz Azul game increased 205% from June 4 to June 7, when he announced his decision to join the Herons, rising from $122 to $373.

From digital sports platform and MLS e-commerce partner Fanatics, since the news of Messi coming to Inter Miami broke, more team merchandise has been sold than the previous entirety of 2023 combined. In the same timeframe, Inter Miami have been Fanatics’ top-selling MLS club, selling 50% more merchandise than their closest rival.

The first 24 hours of Messi jersey sales, confirmed by Fanatics, were the best 24 hours of any player changing teams across all sports, edging out Cristiano Ronaldo joining Manchester United in 2021, Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 and LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.

From July 17 to July 20, Inter Miami were Fanatics’ top-selling team across all sports. “That is unheard of for an MLS team,” said a source from Fanatics. The day following the Messi news, Inter Miami merchandise sales spiked 50 times the previous pre-Messi day.

Inter Miami’s managing owner Jorge Mas confirmed on CNBC’s “Halftime Report” on July 18 that Messi jerseys were sold out. Adidas’ president of North America, Rupert Campbell, told reporters during the aforementioned news conference: “Jerseys are selling out at stores in minutes … which is why we’ve opened a pop-up store in the center of Miami.”

Tor Southard, senior director of Adidas soccer, added, “Every single fan who wants a jersey” — the pink The Heart Beat authentic iteration jersey runs fans $194.99, complete with “Messi 10” printing, before tax and shipping at the MLS store — “should be able to get a jersey, whether it’s online or at one of our stores. As the jerseys come in, we’re shipping them [right] out to fans.”

MLS’s official online store warns buyers that their Messi kits may not arrive until October.

Online retailer also recently told CNN they’d sold half a year’s worth of “Messi 10”-printed Inter Miami jerseys in just one day.

Mas told CNBC that he expects Messi’s arrival to double Inter Miami’s revenue, which according to Forbes was $56 million in 2022, and value, currently around $600 million. Mas has reason to be optimistic: The Sports Business Journal reported this week that Apple TV boasted roughly 700,000 MLS Season Pass subscribers in early June, which rose to nearly a million by Messi’s debut vs. Cruz Azul.

“There’s a huge amount of change [in MLS] over the years,” said Beckham. “I remember turning up in 2007, there was about 15 teams in the league; now there’s 30. There’s soccer-specific stadiums for almost every MLS team. The level of the game has definitely changed — Leo is actually coming into a perfect situation.”

Even in the sports card world, Messi’s arrival had fans opening their wallets: With collectibles marketplace Goldin, less than a week after the announcement, a PSA gem-mint 10 of a 2004-05 Panini Sports Megacracks Lionel Messi rookie card sold for more than $266,000.

Even at 36 — with a dozen league titles, four UEFA Champions League crowns, and World Cup and Copa America trophies for Argentina — for a man who’s won everything there is to win in global football and then some, there are still new and lucrative frontiers to conquer.

It’s still Messi’s world. We’re just living in it.

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