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

MLS and Inter Miami have their work cut out in order to bring Lionel Messi to America. (Photo by Gustavo Pagano/Getty Images)
MLS and Inter Miami have their work cut out in order to bring Lionel Messi to America. (Photo by Gustavo Pagano/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi-to-MLS began, sometime last decade, as a distant pipe dream. But after years of courtship and rumors, with Messi’s impending departure from PSG all but confirmed, 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 key suitors for the greatest soccer player ever.

When his PSG contract expires at the end of June, Messi will have only a few flawed options. There is Barcelona, his former club of 20-plus years, which can offer elite European competition, but whose ailing finances might be prohibitive. There is Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly offered Messi $400 million per year to play at Al-Hilal, but which would take him out of soccer’s Euro-centric spotlight, into an autocratic kingdom.

And then there is South Florida, where Messi owns property and frequently vacations; where there is a thriving Argentine community and, soon, an Argentine national soccer training center; where there is glamor and American brands that would eagerly capitalize on his presence, all of which are reasons that Messi has said he’d like to play in the U.S. someday.

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

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

The unprecedented route Inter Miami could take to land Messi

In theory, Inter Miami, which is majority-owned by billionaire businessman Jorge Mas and his brother, Jose, could pay Messi as handsomely as it wants. MLS imposes a soft salary cap, but allows teams to spend beyond that cap on three “designated players,” without an individual salary maximum.

But Jorge Mas, who has reportedly been spearheading the pursuit of Messi, didn’t accumulate a net worth of $1.1 billion by spending irrationally. He isn’t going to pay Messi $400 million per year, and probably not even $200 million. That would be roughly four times as much as Inter Miami’s total 2022 revenue ($56 million, per Forbes) and perhaps around fifty times as much as its current top earner. (The team’s 2022 player payroll was $24.2 million, per the MLS Players Association — and it made an operating loss of $5 million, per Forbes.)

Messi’s Miami salary would almost certainly be the highest in league history, well beyond the $14 million that Toronto FC currently pays Lorenzo Insigne. At PSG, Messi reportedly makes north of $40 million per season on a contract that also included eight-figure bonuses. Before that, at Barca, according to a leaked version of his contract, he made over $100 million annually. With oil money now skewing the superstar market even further, Messi in MLS could likely command a total compensation package worth nine figures — but only a portion of it would be standard wages.

Argentina fans hold an image of Lionel Messi as Jesus Christ during the game against Honduras on Sept. 23, 2022 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)
Argentina fans hold an image of Lionel Messi as Jesus Christ during the game against Honduras on Sept. 23, 2022 at Hard Rock Stadium 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 $600 million, a number that would assuredly grow with Messi’s arrival and the eventual completion of a new, state-of-the-art stadium.

“Team equity ownership is gonna be a big piece of [a potential deal], there's no doubt in my mind,” says Jordan Gardner, a Bay Area-based soccer investor and consultant, who spoke to Yahoo Sports about Miami’s options but clarified that he has no intimate knowledge of negotiations.

Messi could, in addition to playing for Miami, become a minority owner of the club alongside Beckham and the Mas brothers. He could be gifted, say, a 10% stake; its current value would be roughly $60 million, but that value would rise as high as Messi himself and others could drive it.

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

The Beckham deal likely won’t ever be replicated, but the broader concept — a player becoming not only an employee of the league and team but also a partner — could be. Messi and his family — his dad, Jorge, and brother, Rodrigo, double as his agent and marketing rep — have shown an appetite for investing. In 2022, they helped launch Play Time, a Silicon Valley holding company for investments at the intersection of soccer and technology. Snagging a piece of Inter Miami, and by extension MLS, could be up their 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 shorter-term aspects of the deal that grant Messi cuts of commercial revenue and image rights. Whatever the exact agreement, Garber has indicated — and MLS has proven, year after year — a willingness to be flexible and creative.

'This is going to be a game-changer ... for the entire league'

The other lever that Miami can pull (and European clubs cannot) is a function of MLS’ single-entity structure. Whereas many La Liga clubs, for example, see Barcelona as a competitor — and whereas La Liga president Javier Tebas has said that the league won’t bend its financial rules to accommodate a Messi return — many MLS owners see Mas and Miami as colleagues in a collective project. They likely understand, to some extent, that although Messi might score a few goals against their teams, he’d also boost their bottom lines and club valuations.

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

“If I was [Inter Miami], I would make the argument to all the partners you just described: Look, we're gonna give [Messi] the most we possibly can, including a large chunk of equity,” Gardner says. “But this is going to be a game-changer, just like David Beckham was, for the league — not just for us, for the entire league. We need everyone in the ecosystem to chip in to make this happen.”

There would be pushback. There is also the issue that two of the league’s most important commercial contracts, for broadcast rights and apparel, with Apple and Adidas, were recently locked in through 2032 and 2030, respectively. Messi and the millions of eyeballs he’d bring to MLS seemingly could not be used as a bargaining chip for a new TV deal. This, in theory, would mitigate incentives for the league’s other 28 ownership groups — who, along with Miami, all get shares of broadcast revenue.

On the other hand, it would incentivize Apple — which surely knows that Messi’s arrival would drive new subscribers to its MLS Season Pass service — to help fund a deal.

Any such scheme would have to be approved by the league’s board of governors (the 29 controlling owners). Any negotiations would likely hinge on specific numbers, in addition to non-monetary assurances and, of course, Messi’s desires. It’s unclear whether money will play a decisive role, or any role, in his decision-making.

Barcelona, meanwhile, is reportedly confident, despite the financial mess that could limit its offer to annual wages in the region of $15 million, or could prevent the signing altogether. “His return is now conditional on [Barca] selling players,” Tebas said Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has already wooed Messi with money as a tourism ambassador, and has now reportedly opened talks with his reps, including his father.

Then there is Miami, who, according to an October report from The Athletic, “expect[ed] Messi to 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 stateside move will materialize remains uncertain.