Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia, here’s how brand David Beckham made MLS go big on Lionel Messi

“All petulant in pink like some thuggish flamingo,” read the pages of South China Morning Post. There was no hiding it: China was fuming at Lionel Messi.

Nearly 40,000 had thronged to the Hong Kong Stadium to watch him play, how could he ditch them at the last second? Speculation ran amok. ‘Was it a snub to mainland China from the world’s most popular footballer?’ Regina Ip, member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, went as far as suggesting, “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong”, calling the Argentine a ‘hypocrite’.

An attempt was made to douse the political flames as Messi took to China’s biggest social media app to address the aforementioned claims as ‘false’. But the damage was done and strange as it may sound, for his club – Inter Miami – it was one of the many wins to brag about since his arrival last summer.

Keep aside a fan’s perspective on sport, for once, and pay heed to the most famous gospel of the 19th century American showman P.T Barnum: “There is no such thing as negative publicity.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the reaction from their trip to Hong Kong, the Major League Soccer (MLS) side which finished second to bottom in the Eastern Conference standings last season and couldn’t seem to buy a win in this year’s pre-season, has attracted unprecedented levels of attention over the last year. Not just in their short six-year history but also in America’s tryst with soccer – one of the biggest sports fusion stories of our time – dating back to last century.

A country with its own version of football is finally taking note of the world’s most popular game. Thanks in no small part to the signing of Messi and all the caveats that come with him – good or bad.

A marriage reformed

Festive offer

The land of the ‘Big Four’ – NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL – has been flirting with the idea of adding another to its fabled lot for a while now. On paper, they make quite the couple, don’t they? A vast market with unlimited resources for the safest product in all of sport. But for one reason or another, the marriage hasn’t quite worked out. Despite hosting a blockbuster World Cup in 1994, having had a fairly consistent men’s team since – and a world-class women’s side – interest in top-tier soccer has been less than some of the college sports, let alone their professional counterparts.

A telling stat from 2022 is that the official NCAA (American) football attendance was 19,729 fans per game more than that of the MLS in the same year. As of 2024, the latter has been fuelled dramatically. Since Messi first donned the MLS crest, the average attendance of the league has gone up by five percent. Even before the year 2024 came around, Inter Miami would drop the mic by stating that they’re already sold out for the upcoming season. But it’s not just them, a record six more clubs have set personal attendance records over the past year.

With Messi in 2023 also came the elusive Apple TV+ 10-year deal, the streaming platform stating it has registered as many as a million viewers on some of the MLS games – in line with NFL figures. Messi changing clubs has induced more jersey sales than what NFL’s Tom Brady and NBA’s Lebron James managed, AP would report.

Also a welcome change, as a result of its big acquisition, has been an increased space and air time afforded to the MLS by the media in the States. From dailies to talk shows, YouTube to the podcasting landscape, MLS has sprung along the Big 4 more often than it ever did. The extent of it is perhaps best summed up by one of the country’s most-watched sports talk show host Stephen A Smith in his own candid manner. “The MLS, we need to be honest about it people, is a G league. Can you imagine what kind of show this man is going to put on? It’s a very big deal.”

Putting on a show has long been part of American sporting culture, evidenced by the recent Super Bowl ceremony which also saw Messi make his debut at the half-time show. A 90-second long ad that featured the Argentine alongside Jason Sudeikis, lead actor of the most-binged football drama show Ted Lasso. It wasn’t the first time either that Messi was seen alongside Sudeikis. The Inter Miami captain’s first match night in Los Angeles last year had charmed the who’s who of Hollywood and became the envy of the Super Bowl. The kind of attendance not many would’ve associated with an MLS game even a year back.

Ambitious brand Beckham

The World Cup-winning captain signing for a bottom-tier MLS club less than six months after lifting the most prestigious trophy in the game sent shockwaves around world football. For Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham though, it was always part of the plan.

“I turn to Jorge (Mas) and say, ‘One day, we need Messi to come to our club’,” he broached the idea to his co-owner on their first meeting 10 years back. But bringing the serial Ballon D’Or holder to North America was always going to be a big challenge. Beckham would later spill the beans on how the biggest signing in MLS history was pulled off with a secret meeting dating back to 2019.

David Beckham on signing Lionel Messi Screengrab: Lionel Messi moments away from coming on the pitch for the first time for Inter Miami as the MLS side co-owner David Beckham watches from behind. (Apple TV)

“We got on a plane and flew to Barcelona from London secretly,” Beckham conceded. “We snuck into a hotel, met Jorge Messi (Messi’s father and agent) and started the conversation. It purely went, ‘We would love your son to play for our team one day. We know he can’t come yet, but one day we would love to have Leo in Miami’,” Beckham conceded to The Athletic.

The conversation was put on the backburner after Messi decided to leave Barcelona and sign with Paris Saint Germain in 2021. But as the Argentine’s contract ran out and a plethora of problems at the French club reared their ugly head, Beckham knew it was the right moment to strike. And ultimately, the conversation that started at a dinner table turned into reality as Messi announced in 2023 that he would be signing with Inter Miami.

It was a foresight that’s been associated with brand Beckham since his playing days. A globetrotting career navigating from the glory days of Manchester United to the galacticos era at Real Madrid also saw a first marquee signing in the MLS era – bringing the league into notice like never before.

As a club owner, the Englishman has similarly jumped the gun,0 by not just bringing in Messi as the big signing but also surrounding him with players who can bring the best out of him: his band of Barcelona brothers. Beckham added to the spotlight to match days further by using his own stardust to invite American icons in Serena Williams, Lebron James, even Kim Kardashian, to the Miami games.

It is only with Brand Beckham that the brand of Messi has taken the American landscape by storm. The England icon’s shrewd business acumen may even best his playing nous from back in the day.

Leave a Comment