Photograph: Sam Navarro/USA Today Sports
The symbolism of David Beckham welcoming Lionel Messi on to Inter Miami’s pitch as a Major League Soccer player for the first time was unavoidable. Beckham was, after all, the catalyst for the growth of a league that now boasts arguably the greatest player of all time. Messi, who was presented to a crowd of 20,000 Inter Miami fans on Sunday, could now be the catalyst for something more.
“There will always be a before and after Lionel Messi,” Jorge Mas said in the South Florida rain, which the Inter Miami co-owner poetically called “holy water”. Even amid the downpour, which threatened to wash out the event, there was a sense that Messi’s unveiling marked the start of a new era for MLS. The 36-year-old is expected to make his Inter Miami debut against Cruz Azul this Friday, although he may not start the match.
Messi was unveiled alongside Sergio Busquets, his former Barcelona teammate who has also made the switch to Inter Miami. Jordi Alba didn’t attend, but he too is also expected to join soon. Meanwhile, speculation is swirling around Luis Suárez, another of Messi’s former Barça teammates – reports in Argentina claim Suárez has been talking to Inter Miami for months.
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That Messi is already attracting more household names to MLS is notable and offers some validation to a league that took unprecedented measures to land the Argentinian. Not only will Messi collect an annual salary of somewhere between $50m and $60m, his contract includes commercial incentives related to Adidas jersey sales and Apple TV+ subscribers. Messi was also offered equity in Inter Miami for good measure.
Of course, MLS has bent its own rules to sign a player before. Back in 2007, the league gave Beckham the option to buy a franchise for just $25m. A decade later, the former England captain activated that clause to establish Inter Miami at a time when MLS franchise spots are going for as much as $500m (see the recent expansion into San Diego).
Beckham’s move also created the Designated Player (DP) rule, a mechanism that allows clubs to spend above their salary cap to sign stars. Without ‘The Beckham Rule,’ as it was initially dubbed, the likes of Thierry Henry, Kaká and Wayne Rooney never would have played in MLS. It ensured Beckham wouldn’t be the last international star to join the league.
One wonders how Messi’s move will change the way MLS attracts players. Players and agents around the world will have noted how Messi’s Inter Miami contract is heavily incentivised. The more money MLS makes from Messi, the more money Messi himself makes. What’s to stop prospective signings asking for a cut of the same deals Messi is now tied into?
It could even change the global transfer landscape as a whole. Michael Jordan raised the ceiling on what athletes could earn from endorsement deals by demanding a cut of every Air Jordan shoe sold. Now, revenue sharing is commonplace with athletes more protective of their image rights than they were even a decade ago. Could Messi’s Inter Miami deal change soccer contracts in a similar way? Many already see him as soccer’s Jordan.
On a more micro level, Messi’s arrival in MLS will surely prompt many within the league to reconsider its restrictive roster rules. At present, MLS clubs are permitted to have just three DPs at any given time. While the rule originally helped to protect the league from reckless spending and the mistakes made during the NASL era, it is now holding back clubs from realising their full potential.
Not only could MLS clubs be given more freedom to spend as they like, MLS’s trade and transfer rules could do with some untangling. While the rest of world soccer uses transfer gossip to generate year-round headlines and interest, MLS complicates such discussion for the casual fan by wrapping it up in unnecessary jargon. Does anyone truly understand what GAM and TAM is? Or why the the Discovery List, which essentially allows clubs to call dibs on a player, still exists?
The league’s commissioner, Don Garber, insists he doesn’t view the Saudi Pro League as a threat, but MLS figures should be looking at how many star players are joining Saudi clubs this summer and pondering how to open up the transfer trade route to the USA and Canada. Barriers must come down. Some of the bigger clubs with richer owners want to spend more money, so let them – albeit within some sort of structure that retains a semblance of parity. Mas is unsurprisingly believed to be pushing this point among MLS owners now he has Messi’s signing to underline his argument.
“We have a special moment to capitalise on,” said Garber. That moment doesn’t just include Messi’s arrival at Inter Miami, but the 2024 Copa America, 2025 Club World Cup and 2026 World Cup. MLS has a new landmark 10-year, $2.5bn broadcast deal with Apple, has recently renewed its long-term partnership with Adidas until 2030 for a reported $830m and kicks off an entirely new competition (the Leagues Cup) this weekend.
In almost every way, MLS has entered its most significant period of transition since Beckham joined the LA Galaxy 16 years ago. With Messi now part of the league, the opportunity is obvious, but MLS can’t afford to sit back and think the job is done. Instead, it should push everyone within American soccer to strive for better. Messi joining Inter Miami won’t change MLS on its own.