Messi Shines a Spotlight on Miami, and on Soccer in the U.S.

On the morning of Lionel Messi’s first official practice with his new Inter Miami teammates, Freddy Eraza Jr. and his father woke up before the sun rose. Hoping to see Messi, and to snap a photo of him, they arrived at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday at 6 a.m. A news helicopter had already been circling the practice field for at least an hour.

But Messi, 36, was already arriving when the Erazas got there, and they missed their opportunity for a keepsake. Four hours later, they still stood in the parking lot of the practice facility and stadium, sweating alongside dozens of fans in the sticky, 96-degree South Florida heat. They were all waiting to catch a glimpse of the man considered perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time, who had shockingly decided to spend the twilight of his career competing in Major League Soccer rather than for the soccer powerhouse Barcelona or for more money in Saudi Arabia.

It made sense to see many Argentina fans, jerseys and flags here because Messi led the country’s national team to World Cup glory in December, and because Florida has the largest Argentine community in the United States. But Messi disciples come from all over.

“There is everything here,” said Eraza, 40, who is originally from Honduras and now lives in Fort Lauderdale. “There are Nicaraguans. Costa Rica. Mexicans. And lots of Americans.”

Messi with his Inter Miami teammates during training this week.Credit…Hector Vivas/Getty Images

This is the power of Messi. Before he agreed to come here, Inter Miami was perhaps best known for a cheating scandal in 2021. The team is a new franchise that only began playing in 2020, and it’s in last place in the standings so far this season. But from the moment Messi announced his new home, he has flipped Inter Miami’s world upside down and shined an enormous spotlight on South Florida.

Messi, who has claimed seven Ballons d’Or as the world’s best men’s soccer player, isn’t just an iconic athlete who has reached almost mythical proportions. He already has and likely will continue to have a substantial cultural impact on a city — and region — known as the unofficial capital of Latin America. Restaurants have changed their menus to include Messi-themed dishes. Murals and signs of Messi have popped up everywhere. Argentine culture is spreading through him.

“The magnitude of this announcement — no matter how much I’ve prepared, envisioned, dreamed — is mind-blowing,” said Jorge Mas, the Cuban American billionaire and South Florida native who is the managing owner of Inter Miami. “You’d have to live in a cave to not know that Leo Messi is an Inter Miami player, no matter where in the world.”

Look no further than the demand for tickets.

A mural of Messi outside the Argentine restaurant Fiorito in Miami.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Granted, Inter Miami plays in a stadium about 30 miles north of downtown Miami that has a listed capacity of 19,000 and is a placeholder until a proposed larger venue next to Miami International Airport is expected to be completed in two years.

But the prices for many tickets to Messi’s first Inter Miami game, on Friday against the Mexican team Cruz Azul, jumped over $300 from roughly $40. He may not start and may play only some of the game — part of a new monthlong tournament between M.L.S. and Liga MX called Leagues Cup — but it was already announced as a sellout.

The average ticket price on the secondary market for Inter Miami’s remaining home games skyrocketed to $850 from $152, with road games seeing an even bigger jump, according to Ticket IQ.

While some fans have gotten their hands on a Messi Inter Miami jersey, the items are hard to come by online. A note on Inter Miami and M.L.S. official stores, which are run by the sports apparel retailer Fanatics, said that Adidas, the league’s official jersey supplier, would be “delivering this product in mid October.” The M.L.S. regular season ends around then. (Adidas did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to Fanatics, since Messi’s new jersey launched on Monday, Inter Miami has been its top-selling team across all sports. The company said on Thursday that it had sold more Inter Miami merchandise since Monday than in the previous seven and a half months of 2023.

“This is going to give a level of global exposure for us that we never could have achieved without a player like Messi,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said. “Whether that’s in South America or in Argentina, or in Europe because he had legendary careers in Barcelona and in France. The goal is try to capture as much of the interest in Messi as we can.”

Before Messi’s announcement, Inter Miami’s Instagram account had one million followers. The count had ballooned to nearly 11 million as of Friday, surpassing Inter Milan, the storied soccer club in Italy, and all professional sports teams in the United States save for three N.B.A. teams.

Some businesses across South Florida now feature homages to Messi.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

“The city has got a bit of a buzz to it now,” Inter Miami defender DeAndre Yedlin said to nearly 40 reporters gathered before a Thursday morning practice, a crowd much larger than usual. “People are really excited, which is nice to see.”

For Messi’s presentation event on Sunday — which was broadcast globally in English and Spanish on Apple TV+, M.L.S.’s first-year streaming partner — nearly 500 media members were credentialed, according to Inter Miami. And nearly 200 were approved for Messi’s first practice. Even though reporters were given access to only 15 minutes of the training session, which is common in the sport, television and radio reporters from Argentina broadcast live from their spots on the other side of the field, and then later from the parking lot.

“That’s a gift that Leo has given the sport,” said David Beckham, the former soccer star and an Inter Miami owner. “It’s about legacy for him. He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything that any soccer player can do in the sport.”

Even beyond the field, Messi is among the most famous humans on Earth. At the World Cup in Qatar, it was common to see not only Argentina fans wearing his jersey and singing the national team chants, but also people from Bangladesh or the Philippines. A 30-foot-tall cutout of Messi stands, for example, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Building on its popularity in Asia, Argentina’s national soccer federation had already begun its plans to grow in the U.S. market a year and a half ago. Leandro Petersen, the A.F.A.’s chief commercial and marketing officer, said the federation has 30-year deals in place in South Florida either to build new facilities (North Bay Village) or to renovate existing ones (Hialeah) to use as training centers for its national team ahead of the 2024 Copa América tournament and the 2026 World Cup.

Demand for Inter Miami gear and tickets have skyrocketed. Argentine culture is spreading through him in Miami.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

But now that Messi is around, Petersen said the federation is benefiting from the boost and seeing its timelines accelerate. Before, he said, it was more difficult to compete with the established American sports leagues, such as the N.F.L. or N.B.A.

“What’s happening now is that different companies that didn’t invest in soccer because it’s not the most popular sport in the United States, they’re now starting to include in their budget a part to invest in soccer,” Petersen said in Spanish.

Emi Danieluk, the brand ambassador for a local chain of Argentine steakhouses called Baires Grill, which has frequently hosted Messi, his family and his Argentine teammates, said Messi’s arrival had already given more visibility to Argentine culture, products and food. He sees more potential ripple effects of Messi’s presence.

“We have today an example of what Messi is generating in Florida, but I can assure you when he starts to travel for Inter Miami to other stadiums that have more capacity, like Atlanta United and 80,000 people, the impact he is going to have in every state is really significant,” Danieluk said. “I don’t think people realize that right now.”

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