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Transformative Flair: Lionel Messi is Already Shaping a Limitless Future for Soccer in America

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has wasted no time bewitching the landscape of MLS and US soccer at large on and off the field since joining Inter Miami CF.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and Apple Senior Vice President of Services Eddy Cue sat in their chairs in the basement of the Apple Carnegie Library in Washington, DC like two proud fathers grinning with gusto as they spoke about the growth of the league since it was conceived following the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States.

And, more importantly, what’s to come over the next decade as partners as all eyes in the men’s game turn toward the 2026 World Cup in North America.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all,” Garber said. “I feel finally we have a global megaphone to be able to take this league that has been growing its scale, its interest, its popularity, its connectivity and now be able to really transmit that around the world doing it with multiple languages, doing it with the technology and interface that is unprecedented. And to be able to [broadcast] any game everywhere without blackouts on any device, no sports league can deliver that. 

“So, I look at that as the best opportunity to be able to take everything we believe so much in, our fans believe so much in, and have it have a front porch to millions and millions and millions of fans that might not have been paying attention to Major League Soccer.

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With MLS now amplified on a worldwide scale thanks to a 10-year, $2.5 billion global media rights deal with Apple announced in 2022, all of the pieces were in place — save for the biggest attraction of all, a true global superstar.

That is, until June 7 when seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi announced he was joining Inter Miami CF rather than accepting billions —yes, with a B — to join the Saudi Pro League like the player to whom he’ll be forever compared in every way, Cristiano Ronaldo.

After his unveiling alongside former FC Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets on July 16, Messi didn’t need a tune-up. The magisterial one wasted effectively zero time in delivering a signature jolt both to the US soccer product on the field and the business of the stateside game off it.

As if scripted by the soccer gods and Hollywood writers, Messi scored the match-winning free kick in stoppage time in his debut on July 21 against Liga MX side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, a new mid-season, World Cup-style competition pitting all MLS and its Mexican neighbors against one another.

It was almost too on-the-nose to be real.

As cheers rang out throughout DRV PNK Stadium and among those watching on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, Garber, Cue, Inter Miami owners Jorge Mas and David Beckham, and every other person involved with the years-long effort to bring Messi to South Florida smiled; some even shed a tear.

In mere minutes, the investment was already paying off.

“The league has a long history of bringing great players in,” Garber said ahead of the MLS All-Star Game. “Some of the best players in the world have played in Major League Soccer, and in many instances later on in their career, but in David Beckham’s case, he was 31. We have players that are coming in at different parts of their professional career journey, but there’s only one Lionel Messi and we’re all managing through that in real time.

“I think the rest of the world is going open their eyes to MLS and what’s going on in the US and Canada, what’s happening with the road to the World Cup and with innovative partners, and I think you’re going to start seeing a step change in sort of the types of players that are going to come into our league. I will say, without it appearing defensively, this is part of a long-term plan.”

It’s been well documented that the Messi Effect has been in full effect since early June. The superstar’s arrival caused ticket sales and merchandise sales to skyrocket. According to Fanatics, the first 24 hours of Messi MLS jersey sales were the biggest 24 hours of any player changing teams across all sports — more than LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers, more than Ronaldo returning to Manchester United, more than Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Meanwhile, Inter Miami was the platform’s top-selling team across all sports from July 17-20.

Jorge Mas, also president of Spanish club Real Zaragoza, told CNBC that he anticipates Messi will help Inter Miami double its revenue ($56 million in 2022) and valuation ($600 million). MLS Season Pass subscriptions are at approximately 800,000, while other reports claim aggregate Apple TV+ platform viewing was up 75% for Inter Miami’s 4-0 Leagues Cup win against Atlanta United on July 25 compared to the previous week.

Coincidence or #MessiEffect?

“The league is developing at a rapid pace,” DC United manager and former England/Manchester United superstar Wayne Rooney said. “Getting Lionel Messi into MLS is huge. He’s a player who I’ve always loved playing against, watching him play the game, and now it’s going to be great for fans in the States to watch him up close. Obviously, with the Apple deal for the league, I think the league is developing, and getting Messi could be a real game-changer.”

While he wasn’t present in the nation’s capital for the latest iteration of the MLS All-Star Game, Messi’s impact wasn’t lost on any of the players who were.

“I’m an American and this is my country’s league and I never really would have thought a guy like Messi or Busquets would be coming over here,” 21-year-old New York Red Bulls defender John Tolkin said. “I used to play with them in FIFA, have their jerseys and trading cards. It’s pretty insane. It’s a great time to be in this league and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Four-time MLS All-Star and USMNT defender Walker Zimmerman was attending a US youth soccer camp when the Los Angeles Galaxy unveiled Beckham in 2007. The Nashville SC defender said Beckham’s arrival caused him to watch MLS more and believes Messi will do the same for the next generation of fans.

“It’s going to be massive,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t really seen anything like it — a global superstar, greatest-of-all-time talent coming to our domestic league. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. You look at the sports that are successful in the United States and that’s all great, but I don’t think people in the United States realize what a global star Messi is. 

“It will be fun. It will be really exciting. The atmosphere in every stadium he goes to is going to change and be the best that it’s ever been and that’s going to be good for the growth of the league. We’re excited. I’m sure every player has their calendar marked for the game they’re playing Miami and that’s really special too.”

While the United States and MLS are embracing its new talisman with open arms, Messi, like all other foreign players coming to the US from a career in Europe, will have to make his own adjustments.

Playing on artificial turf will be new. A six-hour flight from Miami to Los Angeles will be new.

Some clubs like Atlanta United and Charlotte FC — which share their fields and stadiums with NFL teams — have already confirmed they won’t cater to Messi by replacing their turf surfaces with natural grass.

“Advice for Messi? Get ready for a lot of travel, I guess,” Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris said.

Yet, it’s hard to argue against soccer’s GOAT, a player who has accomplished everything there is in the Beautiful Game, being able to adapt and thrive in his new surroundings.

As if anyone could have questioned it, the 2022 FIFA World Cup-winning Argentine quickly silenced doubters in the Leagues Cup with a goal in his debut, two goals and an assist in Inter Miami’s subsequent win against Atlanta, and another two goals on 3-1 win against Orlando City SC on Aug. 2.

Inter Miami had an 11-match winless streak pre-Messi; they’re a perfect 3-0 in the Messi Era with a Round of 16 Leagues Cup contest against FC Cincinnati lined up for Aug. 6.

It’s worth noting that it’s not all sunshine in Southern Florida, however. While Inter Miami has found success in the inaugural Leagues Cup, Messi and former FC Barcelona teammates Jordi Alba and Busquets will have their work cut out for them when the MLS regular season resumes on Aug. 20 — for all the Cup fanfare, their club still sits last in the Eastern Conference standings.

“They have a big task to try to make the playoffs this year,” Zimmerman said. “He knows he has to bring it every single game to try to get them above the playoff line and that’s a big responsibility for him, but nothing he’s not going to be willing to fight for.”

Fortunately, those like Garber and Cue who hedged their bets to fight to bring the world’s best player to their backyard know that Messi’s arrival is just the beginning. This project is meant to be so much bigger than the result of a game, or even a season.

“Our plan was to grow internationally in the future, but it wasn’t my top priority,” Cue said. “It wasn’t our top priority, but Messi changed that completely. It’s like the interest level now internationally has gone up astronomically, so we’ve been doing partnerships with carriers, cable providers, all kinds of things to get mass distribution as fast as possible.

“It’s not just one player — it’s THE player. At his peak. That’s the other part of it. It’s not a guy out of retirement. He’s a guy who just literally won the World Cup.”

At this rate, that won’t be the last cup he wins.

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