Photograph: Sam Navarro/USA Today Sports
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Lionel Messi has had on Inter Miami and MLS since he joined the club in July. But there are some concerning signs underneath the veneer of Messi Mania.
“Soccer in North America will never be the same,” Camilo Durana, the executive vice-president of Apple partnership, properties and events at MLS, told Forbes in June, days after the announcement that Messi was moving to the league.
“In combining the star power of arguably the greatest player of all time, the ease of access to our product, and a North American market that is full of passion for the beautiful game, we believe the multiplier effect will further drive the growth of our league and our sport.”
That growth was instant. Inter Miami’s Instagram following increased by more the 500% within 24 hours of the Messi move being announced and is now larger than any NFL, MLB or NHL franchise.
Since joining Miami, Messi merchandise has been the top-selling for any player on Fanatics, the online sports retail outlet. Within a couple of months of his arrival, the Messi boom had seen more Inter Miami apparel sold than for the whole of 2022.
Related: Messi-palooza would have never been possible if not for Beckham’s LA leap
Apple TV+ has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Messi’s arrival in the US. The streaming company signed a landmark 10-year, $2.5bn deal for the global MLS broadcasting rights last year. The head-spinning package that enticed Messi to the league reportedly includes an annual salary somewhere between $50m and $60m and commercial incentives related to new Apple+ sign-ups. The streaming service launched the first batch of its Messi Meets America documentary series this week.
“For MLS, we couldn’t be happier with how the partnership is going,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook during an earnings call in August. “We’re clearly in the early days, but we’re exceeding our expectations in terms of subscribers, and Messi going to Inter Miami helped us a little bit. So we’re very happy.”
And while it’s hard to know the precise number of Apple’s subscription sales, the games still broadcast on traditional television provide a clearer indicator of soccer’s increased popularity in the United States. For instance, according to the Nielsen ratings system, Leagues Cup matches averaged 680,000 viewers, higher than the average for every MLS postseason. A total of 13.6 million viewers tuned into the 2023 Leagues Cup, which Miami won.
But it’s not only Instagram followings, merchandise demand and TV subscriptions that have surged since Messi’s arrival. Ticket prices for any game involving Messi have been astronomical.
Miami recently released details of their season tickets for next season. Their cheapest, priced at $867, is more expensive than an equivalent at 90% of English Premier League clubs, with high-end prices doubling since the club’s launch in 2020. Thanks largely to the signings of Messi and his former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, Miami’s payroll has more than quadrupled over the last year, a premium now being footed by the fans.
Supporters who bought into the Inter Miami journey on the ground floor on the promise that the club would attract one of the game’s greats are now absorbing the cost of price hikes, or being priced out of their packages, with tickets instead going to celebrities, influencers and companies hoping to snap a picture of Messi rather than celebrate the action on the field.
It’s not as though the calculus has shifted with Messi’s arrival. The plan all along – the dream sold by David Beckham and MLS to Miami – was that they would lure the best players and shiniest stars to the city. “I think Miami needs a star,” Beckham said when the team was announced. “You have to realize the audience we have and Miami would expect us to bring in a star. That’s what we plan on doing.”
Pre-Messi, Miami had the lowest average attendance in MLS. In 2022, the team averaged 12,000 in its 21,000-seater stadium. But while the overall attendance was disappointing, season ticket sales held steady. People kept their seats on the understanding that Beckham’s star wattage would ultimately yield a gamechanger. The reward for the early faithful? Soaring prices.
An initial email to a section of Inter Miami season ticket holders quoted prices as much as four-and-a-half times higher than last season.
My 2023 season ticket plan was $6,802.00 for two seats.
The price they quoted to retain my seats is $30,600.00
This makes Inter Miami the most expensive soccer ticket in the world with what I can only assume is the biggest year over year price increase ever.
— Mike Ryan (Ruiz) 🙌🏽 (@MichaelRyanRuiz) September 28, 2023
Miami wrote to the affected supporters to say the inflated prices that were quoted were the result of a ‘system error’. Miami’s renewal system incorrectly doubled the number of seats attributed to a supporter’s season ticket package.
Rather than being four times more expensive, season ticket packages for next season will be double what they were in 2023, which still makes Inter Miami one of the most expensive soccer tickets in the world.
It’s not just tickets at DRV PNK Stadium that have shot up. The Messi roadshow has seen prices dramatically increase wherever Inter goes. According to TickPick, an online ticket seller, tickets for a September clash at LAFC surged to 527% above the MLS average on the resale market.
“A lot of people in our community are viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Jeff Cheney, the mayor of Frisco, Texas, said prior to Miami’s road trip to play FC Dallas. FC Dallas tickets usually cost under $40. Tickets to see Messi sold for hundreds of dollars at face value and prices on the secondary market rose to $864.
And while such price hikes have often been reported giddily as a further illustration of Messi’s pulling power and a win for MLS, there is a problem with the business model when fans fork out to catch a glimpse of the league’s latest superstar, only for him to be absent come kickoff.
That was the case when Miami traveled to take on Atlanta United in mid-September. Messi had returned from international duty with Argentina carrying a minor injury. It had been expected that Messi would play at least some part in the game, for which Atlanta’s 73,000-capacity Mercedes-Benz Stadium was sold out. On the morning of the match, it turned out that Messi was still in Miami and would not play. Ticket prices plummeted on resale websites and thousands of fans who had paid hundreds of dollars were left disappointed.
The NBA has grappled with a similar problem for several years in the form of ‘load management’, the practice of resting uninjured star players to preserve their health for the postseason. The regularity with which game-fit players have been rested has left fans disgruntled and broadcasters irked to the point that the NBA has legislated against load management for the new season.
“I think whether it’s our teams, our player’s association, individual players, I think there’s an acknowledgment across the league that we need to return to that principle that this is an 82-game league,” the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, said of the league’s new player participation policy. “If you’re a healthy player in this league, the expectation is that you’re going to play.
This season, the NBA will be able to penalize teams that violate the policy by fining them $100,000 for the first infraction and $250,000 for the second. The fine for each infraction thereafter rises by $1m. There has been a slight concession made for players aged 35 and over. Players who fit into this category, such as LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, can be excused from playing in back-to-back games.
While Messi’s absences have apparently been down to nagging injuries, it’s no stretch to imagine a future in which MLS adopts a similar policy, an issue complicated by Apple’s direct financial involvement with Messi. The company helped bankroll the deal to bring Messi to the US. To see a return on their investment, they need him to play as frequently as possible.
If the league hopes to sustain its burgeoning popularity, it will have to rely on the star players who have attracted the eyes of the nation and the dollars of fans, broadcasters and sponsors to consistently deliver a star-studded product as advertised.
MLS and Inter Miami have spared no expense in bringing Messi to the United States, but such stardom also comes with a cost to the fans and puts a burden on the player.