1 of 7 | Lionel Messi participated in his first training session with Inter Miami on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, July 20 (UPI) -- Fans are gobbling up jerseys and buying high-priced tickets as Lionel Messi's debut Friday with Inter Miami nears, but experts say they don't expect a long-term boost for the economy or the popularity of U.S. soccer with his arrival.
"I would imagine economic impact will fade as excitement, honeymoon phases and novelty fades, but also as his skills fade," Victor Matheson, professor of economics from the College of the Holy Cross, told UPI.
"Initially, there is a burst of enthusiasm and there will be a burst of product demand," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. "But I don't think, in terms of its economic impact, it amounts to very much at all.
"It depends on how MLS and Inter Miami play their hands. My best guess is that it's going to be a short run, and the novelty effect will fade out within a year or so."
Painted murals of the Argentine soccer star appeared throughout Miami last month after he announced he would join Inter Miami. Many Argentines flocked to his introduction ceremony and are expected to help fill DRV PNK Stadium for his playing debut against Cruz Azul at 8 p.m. EDT Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The match, airing on Apple TV and Univision, is part of the Leagues Cup. The competition, featuring teams from MLS and Mexico's Liga MX, will run through Aug 19 and does not count toward season standings.
First training session
Messi participated his first training session Tuesday. The striker, who some consider the best soccer player in history, will wear his familiar No. 10.
His immediate impact on the field must be swift if Inter Miami hopes to rise in the MLS standings. The team has won five games, lost 14 and tied three as it sits in the cellar of the 29-team league.
The seven-time Ballon d'Or winner will have some help, with Inter Miami's signing of long-time Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets. Fullback Jordi Alba also is expected to join the team, but the task remains tall.
"My guess is he's going to come in and be a good and pretty impactful player, in terms of quality of soccer on the field," Matheson said. "But by year three or four, we're talking about a Messi who is is pretty old and still kind of at the top of his game, but aging."
Artists painted murals to honor Lionel Messi, including a "Welcome to Vice City" piece, in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. Photo by Alex Butler/UPI
Inter Miami is favored to beat Cruz Azul and recently received more favorable odds to make the MLS playoffs.
Messi's injection into Inter Miami's previously lackluster roster and impact on merchandise booths, local vendors and the team's coffers is expected to be positive for some time.
Team managing owner Jorge Mas told CNBC on Tuesday that Inter Miami sold out of Messi jerseys, but supplier Adidas is printing more. He expects Inter Miami's revenue to double over the next year.
Zimbalist, Matheson and John Solow, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida, estimate that Inter Miami will see a boost from its estimated $600 million franchise value.
But they cited MLS financial roster limitations, supremacy of European soccer leagues, TV contracts and Messi's age as impact-limiting factors.
Follows Beckham's path
Messi, 36, is the latest soccer star to join MLS after a sensational tenure in Europe. Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham made a similar decision at age 31, joining the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 2007 move from Real Madrid.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (36), Thierry Henry (32) and Gareth Bale (32) were among other European legends who joined MLS late in their careers.
Each economist compared Messi's arrival to the move Beckham made over a decade ago. Zimbalist also likened Messi's arrival to the effect a new stadium would have in luring attention.
"Sometimes professional teams are able to take advantage of the novelty effect when the revenue starts going up," Zimbalist said. "They then deploy those revenues to generate a better team. Sometimes they're able to sustain the effect of [new] stadiums."
Zimbalist said prolonging Messi's impact will depend on his enthusiasm and "physical aptitude to perform at the top level."
"For the time being, he seems like he's got it, but who knows? You don't know whether he injures an ankle or he just has general deterioration of skills," Zimbalist said of Messi, who led Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title.
$150 million deal
Zimbalist said Messi's contract, a 2 1/2-year deal worth up to $150 million, should give the soccer star "adequate motivation" to perform at the top level, but that isn't a certainty. He also said the team must raise its overall performance level to complement Messi's impact.
Messi will receive revenue from Apple, Adidas and Fanatics as part of agreement to play in MLS. The agreement includes an option to own future equity in Inter Miami.
His arrival was an immediate boon for 5-year-old MLS club. Inter Miami's Instagram following was about 1 million fans before his signing. The account is now the fourth-most followed (10.2 million) among U.S. sports franchises, behind only the Golden State Warriors (31 million), Los Angeles Lakers (23 million) and Cleveland Cavaliers (15.9 million).
Messi jerseys, some priced at $200, were flying out of merchandise booths Sunday in Fort Lauderdale during his introduction. The economists say they expect the trend of Messi-related merchandise sales and immediate intrigue to continue, but don't see the MLS gaining major steam when compared to elite European leagues, like Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga or England's Premier League.
MLS popularity issues
"The issue today facing MLS is not getting people to watch soccer," Matheson said. "That's easy now. It's getting people to watch MLS as opposed to other types of soccer, which have become extremely easy to watch."
MLS and Apple TV agreed to a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal in 2022. ESPN and ABC reported that they drew an average of 357,000 viewers -- the most since 2007 -- during their 2022 regular-season soccer offerings, up from 295,000 in 2022.
Still, 2022-23 Premier League broadcasts dwarfed those numbers in the United States and abroad. NBC recorded the second-most watched Premier League season, with an average of 527,000 U.S. viewers. NBC and the Premier League agreed to a six-year, $2.7 billion extension in 2021.
The Premier League's domestic broadcast deals are valued at an estimated $2.1 billion per season. Bundesliga ($1.2 billion), La Liga ($1.1 billion), Italy's Serie A ($1 billion) and France's Ligue 1 ($654 million) also dwarf MLS ($259 million) in annual, domestic broadcast revenue.
"Without TV money, it's it's hard to do anything but buy players at the either the tail end of their careers or build good young players, who then you sell off when they are successful," Matheson said.
"So you're kind of stuck in MLS, in this world where it's pretty impossible to afford an entire league of Messis in their prime."
Solow said some economic boost will come from those lured from out of town and spend money on hotels, merchandise and for food. That impact will be less when Messi isn't available.
"My guess is that it will make a difference, at least for a while, when Messi plays," Solow said. "If he doesn't show up, if there are periods when he's out, those games may not get the same boost.
"I imagine [a boost] in the short term. Maybe in the long term, if he continues to play and and the team does well, it may last for a while."
Tickets for Messi's debut sold out quickly, but the economists don't expect that demand or the outrageous entry fees to last.
Price, demand drops likely
"It's not going to be Taylor Swift [ticket price costs] after the first game, right? That first game is certainly got some particular cache surrounding it," Matheson said. "I think the first game he appears in in every away city is going to have gigantic prices like that."
The least-expensive ticket for Friday's matchup was listed at $205 -- before fees -- as of Wednesday on the resale market. The most-expensive ticket was listed for more than $20,000.
Part of the reason for the surge in ticket prices -- paired with Messi's presence -- is the size of DRV PNK Stadium. The complex, built for use as an interim site while the team constructs a new stadium in Miami, increased its capacity to 22,000 after Messi's move, but is still dwarfed by larger MLS stadiums.
Atlanta United and Charlotte FC drew league-best averages of 45,000 and 34,000, respectively, last season.
The smaller ticket supply increases demand and pricing. A fading of initial interest in Messi will likely result in lower ticket prices at some point, the economists said.
Beckham's 2007 arrival helped the Los Angeles Galaxy nearly double their ticket sales in his first season, but that demand quickly dipped.
"It was at about 40% in his second year, 18% in the third and you could barely see an effect years after that," Matheson said.
The economists cited MLS roster limitations -- like allowance for just three designated players -- as another reason Messi's presence won't lead to long-term impact, but said potential remains for greater possibility.
"If Messi coming to the United States legitimizes soccer, that could make a difference," Solow said. "But David Beckham came, and was married to a Spice Girl, and I don't see that that really made soccer all of the sudden much more popular. I'm not sure it'll be a much more popular sport with fans.
"Obviously the longer he plays well and frequently, and Miami wins, the stronger the effect will be. But some of it is going to be novelty."
Inter Miami's Lionel Messi takes part in a practice session at the DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on July 20, 2023. Messi's first game with the team will be on July 21. Photo by Marco Bello/UPI | License Photo