Messi to MLS? How Inter Miami and the league could do it


MLS and Inter Miami have their hands full to bring Lionel Messi to America. (Photo by Gustavo Pagano/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi’s move to MLS began as a distant pipe dream sometime in the last decade. But after years of publicity and rumours, with Messi’s departure from PSG imminent, the possibility now seems as real as ever. Inter Miami, the five-year-old MLS franchise minority-owned by David Beckham, appears to be one of three main contenders for football’s greatest player of all time.

When his PSG contract expires at the end of June, Messi will be left with few flawed options. There’s Barcelona, ​​his former club aged over 20 who can offer elite European competition but whose ailing finances could be prohibitive. There is Saudi Arabia that has allegedly offered Messi $400m a year to play at Al-Hilal, but that would take him out of football’s Eurocentric limelight and into an autocratic kingdom.

And then there’s South Florida, where Messi owns real estate and vacations frequently; where there is a thriving Argentine community and soon an Argentine National Football Training Centre; where there is glamor and American brands that would eagerly capitalize on its presence, which are all reasons for that Messi has said he would like to play in the USA one day.

MLS can’t match Barca’s prestige or quality on the field or the romance of a potential Catalan reunion. It cannot match the boundless Saudi wealth. The question is whether it can combine the pull of Miami and Messi’s interest with what MLS commissioner Don Garber recently called “a deal that will compensate him in ways he and his family expect.”

To do that, MLS and Inter Miami will likely need to go beyond a traditional salary. They’ll have to consider everything from ownership stakes to third-party funding, and hatch a deal that, Garber told The Athletic, will be “out of the box.”

The unprecedented path Inter Miami could take to land Messi

In theory, Inter Miami, majority-owned by billionaire businessman Jorge Mas and his brother Jose, could pay Messi as well as they want. MLS imposes a soft salary cap, but allows teams to spend beyond that cap on three “designated players” with no individual salary cap.

But Jorge Mas, who has reportedly spearheaded the pursuit of Messi, hasn’t amassed a $1.1 billion net worth by spending irrationally. He won’t pay Messi $400m a year, probably not even $200m. That would be about four times Inter Miami’s total revenue in 2022 ($56 million, per Forbes) and maybe around fifty times as much as his current top earner. (The team’s 2022 player salaries were $24.2 million, according to the MLS Players Association — and it made a $5 million operating loss, according to Forbes.)

Messi’s salary in Miami would almost certainly be the highest in La Liga history, well above the $14m Toronto FC is currently paying Lorenzo Insigne. At PSG, Messi reportedly earns over $40m a season on a contract that also included eight-figure bonuses. Before that, he earned over $100m a year at Barca, according to a leaked version of his contract. With oil money now further distorting the superstar market, Messi could likely command a nine-figure total compensation package in MLS – but only part of that would be a standard wage.

Argentina fans hold a picture of Lionel Messi as Jesus Christ during the game against Honduras at Hard Rock Stadium on September 23, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

In addition to an eight-figure salary, Inter Miami could offer Messi minority shares in the club – which is currently valued at around $600m, a number that would surely rise with Messi’s arrival and the eventual completion of a new, state-of-the-art club. the art stadium.

“Team equity will be a big part of that [a potential deal]I have no doubt about that,” said Jordan Gardner, a Bay Area-based football investor and advisor who spoke to Emox News about Miami’s options but made it clear he doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the negotiations.

Not only could Messi play for Miami, but he could also become a minority owner of the club alongside Beckham and the Mas brothers. For example, he could get a 10% share; Its current value would be around $60m, but that value would rise as high as Messi himself and others could ride it.

Such an arrangement would be unprecedented. The closest precedent would be Beckham, who came to Los Angeles in 2007 to transform MLS. In exchange, he received a salary, but also an option to purchase an expansion franchise for $25 million – which he triggered in Miami in 2018. (The common rate for MLS franchises is now in the mid nine figures.)

The Beckham deal will likely never be repeated, but the broader concept — a player who becomes not just an employee of the league and team, but also a partner — could be. Messi and his family – his father Jorge and brother Rodrigo, who doubles as his agent and marketing representative – have shown an appetite for investment. In 2022, they helped found Play Time, a Silicon Valley holding company dedicated to investing at the intersection of football and technology. Snagging a piece of Inter Miami, and with it MLS, might be up her alley. Another potential avenue could be Miami Freedom Park, the 73-acre, privately funded development project that will include the club’s new stadium.

There could also be more short-term aspects of the deal that will see Messi take cuts in commercial revenue and image rights. Regardless of the exact arrangement, Garber has shown – and MLS has proven year after year – that he’s willing to be flexible and creative.

‘TThis will be a game changer… for the entire league

The other lever Miami can pull (and European clubs can’t) is a function of the unified structure of MLS. For example, while many La Liga clubs see Barcelona as competitors – and while La Liga President Javier Tebas has said the league will not bend its financial rules to allow for a Messi return – many MLS owners see Mas and Miami as colleagues in a collective project. They probably understand to some degree that while Messi could score a few goals against their sides, he would also boost their bottom line and club ratings.

So, one might wonder if the league’s other 28 owners would be willing to subsidize a lucrative Messi salary? What about one of the league’s top partners like Apple?

“If I was [Inter Miami]I would argue to all the partners you just described: look, we will give [Messi] the best we can, including a large portion of the equity,” says Gardner. “But that, like David Beckham, will be a game changer for the league – not just for us, for the league as a whole. We need everyone in the ecosystem to contribute to make this happen.”

There would be setbacks. There’s also the problem that two of the league’s most important commercial deals for broadcasting rights and apparel, with Apple and Adidas, were recently finalized through 2032 and 2030, respectively. Messi and the millions of eyeballs he would bring to MLS apparently couldn’t be used as a bargaining chip for a new TV deal. This would, in theory, reduce incentives for the league’s other 28 ownership groups — which, along with Miami, receive all shares of broadcast revenue.

On the other hand, it would incentivize Apple – who certainly know Messi’s arrival would bring new subscribers to its MLS Season Pass service – to fund a deal.

Such a scheme would have to be approved by the League’s Board of Governors (the 29 controlling owners). Any negotiations would likely depend on specific numbers, in addition to non-monetary assurances and of course Messi’s wishes. It is unclear whether money will play a decisive or even a role in his decisions.

Barcelona are reportedly confident despite the financial chaos that could limit their offer to annual wages in the region of $15m or prevent the signing altogether. “His return is now conditional [Barca] Selling players,” Tebas said on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has already courted Messi as a tourism ambassador and is said to have started talks with his representatives, including his father.

Then there’s Miami, which according to an October report by The Athletic, is “expecting[ed] Messi arrive and hope[d] He [would] sign in the coming months.”

The proverbial ball is now at Messi’s influential feet. Whether or when a landmark move will materialize in the US remains uncertain.

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