Lionel Messi begins his first full season in Major League Soccer Wednesday as his Inter Miami club hosts Real Salt Lake. Messi, already a global soccer icon, took over the cultural zeitgeist in America when he signed with Miami last summer. Since then, rarely can one go to a school or park, no less a local soccer pitch, without seeing multiple pink Messi jerseys.

But it’s not the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. The jerseys truly are everywhere. Vogue Magazine even listed the pink home kit as one of the 15 fashion items that defined 2023.

As Messi Mania returns this week with the kick-off of his first full MLS campaign, let’s take a look back at the unprecedented contract that brought him to the U.S., and how it could forever change the way superstar contracts are negotiated.

Coming to America

In May 2023, Cristiano Ronaldo—long considered Messi’s biggest rival from their battles in Spain’s La Liga—signed a contract to move to the Saudi Pro League, where he cashed in on a $200 million-per-year deal with Al Nassr. Fellow global superstars Neymar and Karim Benzema also joined the Saudi league on deals worth upwards of $100 million annually.

The league offered Messi more than those three contracts combined—a reported three-year, $1.6 billion contract worth more than $500 million annually.

Messi turned it down, opting instead to join Inter Miami on a deal that would pay him just $20.4 million guaranteed per year.

To understand why, you have to look beyond the pay stub.

An Unprecedented Deal

All told, Messi’s contract is reportedly worth $150 million over two-and-a-half years. This includes something rarely seen in American sports: a future equity stake in the team. This option, exercisable after his contract expires, will allow Messi to collect ongoing dividends forever from his ownership stake, which is an asset that can be passed down through generations.

And it doesn’t stop there. Messi’s total compensation reflects him more as a strategic partner than a player or employee. Because of his global status and his ability to raise the profile and profitability of an individual club—and in this case, an entire league—Messi also negotiated profit-sharing agreements with key MLS partners Apple and Adidas.

In 2022, Apple signed a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal for MLS broadcast rights. As part of his deal with Apple, Messi receives a revenue share from new MLS Season Pass subscribers, which is hosted on Apple TV. His arrival in Miami had an immediate impact. Apple TV+ received more than 110,000 MLS Season Pass signups the day of Messi’s Miami debut—a 1,690% bump from the previous day. It registered another 65,000 when Messi played his second game and scored two goals in the first 30 minutes.

The other key partnership is with Adidas. In 2023, Adidas signed a six-year, $830 million deal that extends its partnership with MLS through 2030. Messi, who has been an Adidas athlete since 2006, signed a lifetime sponsorship deal with the company in 2017. Upon his arrival in Miami, the two struck a profit-sharing agreement in which Messi would receive a portion of any increase in Adidas’s profits resulting from his involvement in MLS. And like the Apple deal, the benefits were immediate, as Messi’s shirt became the most-sold jersey of the season within 45 minutes of its launch. In September, the MLS announced that his jersey was the top-selling for 2023, despite him only having been in the league for a few months.

Between his Miami contract, equity stake, and strategic partnerships with Apple and Adidas, Messi’s carer earnings are projected to reach $1.6 billion by the end of 2025.

The Future of Superstar Contracts

Messi’s contract is an experiment in human capital. Few athletes have the global platform to merit such a deal. Peak LeBron James comes to mind. Prime Kobe Bryant, too. But in terms of global reach, Messi is in a class all his own. In a copycat sports landscape where an athlete signs a record contract, only to be outdone by the next megadeal, licensing and rev-share options in superstar contracts will inevitably become more common. But few athletes have the influence to make them lucrative enough for either side to become the standard.

“There will always be a before and after Messi when we talk about the sport in the United States,” Inter Miami Managing Owner Jorge Mas told the Miami Herald after Messi’s signing.

While Major League Baseball doles out $700 million contracts and the Saudi league logs record player salaries, the MLS is strategically bringing in global superstars to help grow the league, and the game, in America. It’s a blueprint for growing leagues—something the four major U.S. sports are less likely to offer. And while Messi-like megadeals may not become the norm, contracts will undoubtedly become more creative in Messi’s wake.

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