Is Lionel Messi's Inter Miami decision a Beckham-level 'game-changer' for MLS?

Lionel Messi chose Inter Miami and MLS over Barcelona and Saudi Arabia. How much of an impact will he have on the U.S. league? (Christian Liewig/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi’s Miami adventure will begin at what was once an MLS gravesite. Some 22 years ago, long before the GOAT decided to take his talents to South Beach, before he’ll arrive to lift an entire league and perhaps American soccer more broadly, that league was crumbling. It nearly folded in 2001. It survived, but its first Miami club, the Fusion, dissolved. The league’s future, if it even had one, looked bleak.

So when Messi debuts in MLS this summer, at Inter Miami’s stopgap home, on the same Fort Lauderdale land that housed the Fusion’s since-demolished Lockhart Stadium, his presence won’t just attract millions of eyeballs and international interest; it won’t only propel MLS toward a more prosperous future; it will be a prize for the league’s organic growth.

It will also be a full-circle moment. Perhaps the single most influential MLS move since those dark early-2000s days was the 2007 signing of David Beckham — who, within an unprecedented deal, received an option to purchase an MLS expansion franchise, which in 2018 became Inter Miami, which on Wednesday became the hottest club in soccer.

On that day in 2018, when MLS unveiled Inter Miami, Messi recorded a video to congratulate Beckham, and added: “Who knows, maybe in a few years you can give me a ring.” Five years later, Messi’s imminent arrival feels like a seismic one with a single parallel: Beckham’s.

But it is different, because MLS is now different.

Beckham was an inflection point, a celebrity who fundamentally altered the course of the league. Messi is more so a turbocharged accelerator.

MLS has come a long way since Beckham arrived in Los Angeles. In 2007, it was a languishing league with half-full stadiums and an uncertain future. Now it is respectable and rising. Many of its 29 teams boast passionate local followings. Its 30th team, set to launch in 2025 in San Diego, cost the ownership group $500 million. It is no longer a league that needs changing or saving.

But what it needs is a national audience. For all its growth, over the years and to this day, MLS viewership on television has been alarmingly low. And that, among many things, is what is about to change.

David Beckham's arrival in MLS in 2007 laid the groundwork for Lionel Messi's move in 2023. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)
David Beckham's arrival in MLS in 2007 laid the groundwork for Lionel Messi's move in 2023. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

In the near term, Messi will boost Inter Miami merchandise sales. Ticket demand and prices have already spiked. He’ll influence the league’s ability to attract sponsors, and probably lift bottom lines. But his biggest impact is the eyeballs he’ll draw. He’ll compel casual fans to buy an MLS Season Pass subscription on Apple TV. He’ll earn MLS more media coverage, locally and internationally. He’ll bring more people from all walks of life to the league, and some of those people will stick around.

The big question, of course, is how many, and for how long. Messi will attract salivating audiences for a few years, and then he will leave. What then? Will anybody care about Colorado Rapids versus Houston Dynamo, or even Los Angeles versus New York, after he is gone?

Nobody knows the definitive answers to those questions. Which is why his impact is unquantifiable, and why the word “seismic” is probably too strong.

The hope, though, is that Messi becomes a catalyst for several virtuous cycles. That his Miami adventure raises the international profile of the league, which helps woo future stars, who in turn attract fans for decades to come. That his genius inspires soccer-playing kids, who eventually become lifelong fans. And that yes, perhaps some of those new Season Pass subscribers will turn on FC Cincinnati versus Philadelphia Union; perhaps some will enjoy the experience, and continue coming back for more.

Fandom is cyclical in that way, especially in this digital age. Signing one of the most popular humans on the planet will have knock-on effects forever.

MLS, for its part, will likely continue on its current trajectory, an upward one built on great gameday atmospheres and promising young stars. Messi won’t change that.

But the trend line will undoubtedly tip upward.

“It's just a massive, massive game-changer,” Jordan Gardner, a Bay Area-based soccer investor and consultant told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “The sport in the United States has changed so drastically since when Beckham came over, it's obviously difficult to compare and contrast. But it's an absolute game-changer for the sport in this country, there's no way around that.”

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