Lionel Messi joined Major League Soccer club Inter Miami in July, and the results have been near-instant.
His club won the reformatted Leagues Cup competition, which features teams from Mexico’s LigaMX and MLS, with the Argentine scoring 10 goals along the way.
He’s also been heavily featured in advertising since his arrival, both by the league and its broadcast partners.
Canadian Major League Soccer clubs are sharing the benefits, and drawbacks, of having one of the world’s greatest players join the league when it comes to marketing and preparing to play against him.
Messi’s signing, Vancouver Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster said, represents a chance for the league to better market itself.
“There’s zero frustration,” he said about whether Messi’s signing had taken away from the work other clubs do in the league. “I think all the stories around Messi are a door opener for us … to deliver additional content from around the league.”
Messi’s signing and Leagues Cup exploits made headlines and he has been heavily promoted by Apple TV — Major League Soccer’s broadcasting partner.
Many of their ads for the league feature photos or clips of the Argentine in action.
“Messi coming to MLS has had tremendous impact on the league and the interest in the league and I think the valuation of the of the teams affiliated with the league,” said Cheri Bradish, the director of the Future of Sport Lab and Sport Initiatives at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Bradish has previously worked for the Florida Sports Foundation, Nike Canada, Florida State University Department of Athletics, the Vancouver Grizzlies, and the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
But, she said, the league and its clubs need to be aware and plan what will happen when the 35-year-old decides to retire.
When Messi joined Miami, he signed a two-and-a-half-year contract.
“You use that as an opportunity to build and build new relationships strengthen old relationships with your consumers, partners, and other stakeholders. But you also have to have an eye on the long term, which is when Messi or other star players are not in the league,” Bradish said, citing the way the NBA handled the retirement of Michael Jordan.
Patrick Leduc, the director of soccer culture for CF Montreal and a former Montreal Impact player, said Messi’s signing could help grow the culture of the sport in Canada.
“So globally I think it’s great for the league. I think it’s drawing attention, it’s exciting,” he said. “Does it highlight some weaknesses in our in our league? Maybe it does, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that globally it’s a positive thing that’s happening.”
Leduc pointed to the longevity, in various iterations, of both Montreal and Vancouver as soccer clubs and said he believed Messi’s signing could bring new fans from outside those cities to support them.
Montreal has already played Inter Miami this season, meaning they won’t play the World Cup winner until potentially next season.
Toronto FC is the only Canadian club still to play Inter Miami.
Schuster said superstars like Messi have been proven to benefit leagues.
He points to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.
Schuster was working in German soccer at the time, but said it was evident how much attention the two players brought to Spain’s La Liga.
That has also been seen with Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic signing for the L.A. Galaxy in 2018, he added.
“Superstars have always been good for leagues,” Schuster said. “It’s our job now to use this momentum and grow the secondary things behind him.”
Those secondary things, he said, include the development of youth players and the success of MLS clubs in other competitions.