Lionel Messi has sparked a one-man economic and cultural wave since joining Inter Miami. With World Cup games coming to Miami in 2026, Messi Mania is just getting started.
Seemingly overnight, murals of Lionel Messi popped up on buildings across downtown Miami. Argentinian muralist Maximiliano Bagnasco, who has painted Messi murals around the world, was summoned in July shortly after word broke of the soccer icon’s move to Inter Miami and went to work on the side of a mixed-use building near a rising condo development in Wynwood. Venezuelan-born artist Arlex Campos painted his rendition of Messi near the intersection of Northwest Second Avenue and 23rd Street weeks earlier, before the soccer star’s deal was even finalized. Inter Miami fan group Vice City 1896 added another Messi mural to the neighborhood — the welcome gesture a part of the fan club’s effort to recreate Latin America’s soccer-crazy culture in Miami.
Inter Miami will finish out its season this month, but history has already been made with the 36-year-old elite soccer player’s arrival heralding what is arguably the biggest ever signing for Major League Soccer. The economic and cultural impact of Messi is just getting started, say experts who chart the interplay of sports and the economy. The 5-foot-7 forward — who is regarded as one of the sport’s greatest players of all time and is one of the world’s most watched public figures — will rake in an estimated $1.15 million per week. But packed stadiums, restaurants and bars will generate revenue for many on game day. The region will also get a boost from Miami serving as a 2026 World Cup venue.
“The energy Messi has created is an overwhelming excitement, not only in Miami but across the country. He’s unquestionably a game-changer on many levels,” says Ed Foster-Simeon, president & CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, who traveled to Miami to channel the energy of Messi’s arrival into a new youth soccer initiative. “There are three universal languages in the world: math, music and soccer. No matter where you go in the world, people understand this game.”
On the day Lionel Messi arrived in Miami, sportswear company Adidas sent an armada sailing through the Port of Miami of Adidas-branded vessels, including a cargo ship decked out in Inter Miami pink. On the ship were crates of Messi jerseys, soccer balls and more bound for communities throughout Miami. The company has a lifetime contract with the Argentinian star which reportedly pays him a percentage of merchandise sales. The inventory making it to shore that day didn’t last. Pink jerseys with “Messi 10” on the back have been sold out. Online retailer Soccer.com told CNN they’d sold half a year’s worth of Messi jerseys in a single day, and Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas says he expects Messi to double Inter Miami’s revenue, reportedly at $56 million in 2022. Inter Miami’s global audience has surged, with some 14.7 million Instagram followers – larger than every NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS team and only three NBA teams have more (Warriors, Lakers and Cavs). Messi himself has a following of 484 million on Instagram.
How about that, Apple?
A few days after Messi’s debut, Apple CEO Tim Cook reflected on what the moment had meant to Apple’s streaming service, which was selling Major League Soccer subscriptions specifically to appeal to Messi mania. “It’s clearly in the early days, but we are beating our expectation in terms of subscribers, and the fact that Messi went to Inter Miami helped us out there a bit — and so we’re very excited about it,” Cook quipped in an earnings call. The Sports Business Journal reported that Apple TV’s 700,000 MLS Season Pass subscribers surged to nearly a million with Messi’s debut vs. Cruz Azul.
Hard Rock’s Crystal Ball
Before Inter Miami was a glimmer in Messi’s eye, the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock International, operator of Seminole Gaming and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, signed up Messi in 2021 as an “ambassador” for its worldwide chain of cafes and select hotels. Commercial campaigns were built around entrees at the hotel restaurants, clothing and other merchandise until the fates brought Messi to the Hard Rock’s front door. The week of his debut, the Hard Rock unveiled the Messi Chicken Sandwich, inspired by one of the soccer legend’s favorite Argentinian dishes — a “Milanesa style” chicken sandwich. The promotion included giving fans a QR-code enabled digital welcome message from Messi, an augmented-reality experience featuring both Messi and the sandwich, Messi trivia games and online shopping links.
By the time Inter Miami’s new stadium is complete in 2025, more than a decade will have elapsed since David Beckham and the Mas brothers began their search for a site that’s actually in Miami. Their search, which began in 2014, covered Overtown and Little Havana before they settled in 2018 on the home of Miami’s only public golf course, Melreese, near Miami International Airport. Voters in 2019 approved allowing the city to negotiate a no-bid, 99-year lease. Critics fought it as another sweetheart deal for a team owner. It took until February of this year for the lease to be signed. Miami Freedom Park, as it will be called, will cover 131 acres with a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, three hotels totaling 750 rooms, 1 million square feet of retail, office and entertainment space and a public park.
There might be no higher profile front men for a project than David Beckham and the majority owners of Inter Miami, the billionaire Mas brothers, Jorge and Jose. They’re the sons of the legendary Cuban exile leader and businessman Jorge Mas Canosa and the duo built their father’s infrastructure company into MasTec, a global builder and installer of pipes, transmission lines and power plants for energy, communications and utilities companies. The Coral Gables-based company is one of the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned businesses and No. 17 on Florida Trend’s list of Florida’s largest public companies with $9.8 billion in revenue last year and 30,000 employees.
For now, Inter Miami is making its home at a $60-million “interim” stadium with a 50,000-sq.-ft. training facility, seven soccer fields, a trail and park. On 34 acres, the 19,100-seat stadium hosts high school football championships and international soccer games. Team managing owner Jorge Mas ordered roughly another 3,000 seats installed to soak up some of the demand Messi generated.
In 2021, Fort Lauderdale-based auto retailer AutoNation signed a three-year partnership deal with the team that included naming its interim stadium in Fort Lauderdale DRV PNK — as in “drive pink,” a reference to AutoNation’s breast cancer philanthropy. Terms weren’t disclosed but a deal that was about boosting the auto giant’s brand became a much better one with the coming of Messi and the national and global recognition he brings. “They hit the jackpot in getting the name out there for sure,” says Daniel Cornely, head of the MBA sports management program at Florida Atlantic University.
Messi led Inter Miami to its first Leagues Cup in August. Inter Miami will play in Fort Lauderdale until 2025, when Miami Freedom Park is planned to open. “The impact of having ‘The GOAT’ play and practice in Fort Lauderdale with Inter Miami cannot be overstated. It’s incredibly exciting to have Fort Lauderdale and DRV PNK stadium consistently mentioned to a massive international audience,” says David Coddington, senior vice president of business development for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance.
‘Fútbol is Life’
Ted Lasso character Dani Rojas may be fictional, but his sentiment is real when it comes to the role soccer plays in fans’ lives. In 2022, Miami-based, Spanish-language media company Telemundo commissioned a report to look at the potential growth of the sport in the U.S. and found:
- While soccer is the most popular sport in the world, the U.S. market is underdeveloped. Soccer fans tend to be younger but also spend more on tickets and team-branded merchandise than other American sport fans.
- Soccer has an estimated 85 million adult U.S. fans, gaining 52% more fans from 2012 to 2019, the report says, citing a Gallup poll. That compares to 27% growth in basketball and 8% in baseball. The number of football fans declined by 7%, the poll found.
- Among Hispanic enthusiasts surveyed, having their home country win the World Cup was ranked among the “most important life events” by 38% of those surveyed. That was behind birth of their children (43%) but higher than getting a dream job and getting married. Source: The Future is Fútbol, 2022
The only thing moving faster than Messi merchandise is Miami real estate, so it’s not a surprise that there’s a place where the two forces intersect: Miami’s North Bay Village. Two years ago, the Argentine Football Association proposed building a headquarters and soccer complex in the small waterfront community and at press time was seeking approval from public boards to move forward with the project.
North Bay Village consists of three islands in Biscayne Bay between Miami Beach and Greater Miami and it’s been undergoing a redevelopment. AFA’s proposal includes building soccer fields, a recreation center, offices and a police station. In addition, the AFA would run youth soccer training and Argentina’s national team would train there occasionally. It’s the start of a bigger business move — the AFA wants to open academies throughout the U.S.
Now the developers of the condo tower 7918 West Drive report increased interest from Argentinian buyers who see the stars aligning over this patch of Miami. The 21-story, 54-unit condo development broke ground in February and is slated for completion in the first half 2025, before the World Cup begins. The project is being developed by Malaysia-based Pacific & Orient Properties, with prices starting at $1.8 million.
All the World’s a Stage
The 2026 World Cup is not that far away when it comes to staging the games for a global audience. The Zurich-based FIFA opened a new 60,000-sq.-ft. office to begin World Cup preparations in Coral Gables. The soccer governing body is already looking to hire, listing job openings for an accountant, a payroll manager and a World Cup 2026 safety/security officer. Florida International University economics professor Hakan Yilmazkuday, who specializes in international trade, says gauging the economic impact of such events can be complicated. “This is a great question asked by pretty much all World Cup host cities — as it is the case for the Olympics or any other one-time big events,” he says. “The dilemma is that the host city usually makes a good amount of investment for the organization, and it is usually undetermined how much of that investment comes back to the city. Accordingly, these organizations are observed as a long-term advertisement of the city rather than making money in a short amount of time during the organization itself.
“I can assure you that the global awareness of Miami during the World Cup would be much bigger than any other event in Miami.”
Miami’s Next Soccer Stars
U.S. Soccer President and CEO Ed Foster-Simeon was in Miami the day of Messi’s debut waiting to capture the moment with a new generation. The U.S. Soccer Foundation focuses on developing soccer programs for children in economically challenged areas, and Miami has been one of its neediest cities.
Partnering with Adidas, Foster-Simeon and his team met with local children at the Underline’s Urban Gym, delivering soccer gear, ice cream and lots of pre-game revelry at one of the small pitches (or fields) that now can be found throughout the city’s core. The foundation has already reached more than 10,000 children in the city through a program that positions soccer pitches as a safe place for them to play in the hours between school and when their parents come home from work.
Messi may have been the man of the moment on that day, but it was another big fish that Miami landed recently who’s funding the effort: billionaire Citadel founder Ken Griffin, who in April had donated $5 million to fund the development of 50 new mini-pitches in Miami-Dade County by 2026. The commitment launched the Miami-Dade County Soccer Initiative, a $10-million campaign to increase opportunities for children to play and benefit from soccer. The goal is to reach at least 36,000 children by 2030.
But Foster-Simeon, a former deputy managing editor for USA Today who was drawn into a career promoting youth soccer as a means of social good after his own children played the game, says the combination of Messi and Griffin is bringing South Florida businesses to the table to eagerly get behind the initiative.
“The community that is built around the soccer field is pretty amazing,” Foster-Simeon says. “Standing together, watching our kids play, you learn things about the community, you build relationships. It’s an every person sport. With some sports, you have to be a certain size. But Messi is not even average height, he’s considered short but he has this impact as a player. Every person can see themselves as a Messi.” — By Vickie Chachere