Labeling MLS as a “retirement league” has been unnecessarily callous for a few seasons now. It is much more than that, and has become more of a selling league, i.e. a league that is mostly interested in developing young players to sell off for big profits to Europe to then be reinvested and start the cycle over again. But that doesn’t mean it won’t act as one when it comes to Lionel Messi, the biggest name to ever land in MLS, as he is reportedly doing so in Miami. But hey, you break rules and reputation and aim for someone like Messi.
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The rumored terms of Messi’s deal to lure him to The Colonies are pretty intricate. Not only will he get a high salary, but he may be capturing a percentage of the new subscriptions to MLS’s Apple TV deal, as well as a booster from Adidas, and a Beckham-style agreement to be part of an ownership group for a future club (Messi comes to Las Vegas, baby!)
The percentage of new subscriptions is the real treat here, which makes you wonder how well it has gone in its inaugural season. Apple and MLS have kept numbers on subscriptions secret for the most part, and whatever has dripped out has not been good. What’s curious is how much MLS and Apple think Messi will add. It’s one thing for casual fans to buy a ticket to see him play when he rolls through Chicago and D.C. or wherever else. It’s another to pony up $75 to watch him play every game with Inter Miami, especially given the non-stakes nature of most MLS games. Are they expecting a million new sign-ups? 500K? How much is Messi getting from that? It leads you to believe that current subscriptions have fallen well short of expectations., You wouldn’t do this if you thought the market was tapped.
It’s still striking that MLS was able to beat out the Saudi Pro League’s offer, rumored to be $400 million a year, as well as the way that league was revamping to be the new retirement home from breaking down stars that MLS is often falsely derided as.
Alongside the news of capturing Karim Benzema and their pursuit of Lionel Messi to join him, as well as the previous capture of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Saudi Pro League announced a revamp this week of its structure. That was that the PIF, the sovereign fund of its endlessly wealthy ruling family, is taking over the big four clubs in the country. Some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest companies, with their own ties to the government, will be taking over other clubs as well.
The stated aim is to greatly raise the profile of the Saudi Pro League, with an eye toward bidding toward the 2030 World Cup. Without getting into the details, the restructuring does not take anywhere near the steps to boost youth development like MLS has done in recent times, nor is the Saudi Pro League making noise about becoming a selling league like MLS has and exporting its talent to European shores. This is about bringing in players and bringing in players only.
There is no guarantee, of course. As The Athletic article pointed out, China tried this not so long ago and it didn’t pan out, and we haven’t seen China in the World Cup since 2002.
While Messi and Benzema are the headliners, other players like Sergio Busquets or Roberto Firmino have been at least rumored to have offers from Saudi Arabia, and are also two players that have been rumored to have offers from MLS as well. There are also rumors that the Saudi Pro League is chasing Wilfried Zaha, a player wanted by some Champions League clubs and who is hardly out of his prime. Neither is Firmino. These are players that could, and still probably will, sign for big clubs around Europe. Still, it shows the aim of the Saudi Pro League.
Luka Modrić and even Neymar are apparently targets as well, and boy don’t those feel like players that an MLS club would have liked to have taken a swing at in the past.
How does this get back to MLS? No matter how much the Saudis pony up to players, they’re not getting players in their prime, because those players want to play in the Big 5 leagues and the Champions League. But those players whose days of being regulars on Champions League clubs and might have once thought of taking a pretty high salary to live in Miami or LA or soon San Diego or New York and play in a league at a more leisurely pace are now going to be offered ungodly salaries to do the same in Saudi Arabia (Benzema is getting somewhere around $150 million per season). MLS will simply not be able to compete with the kind of money the PIF is going to be offering for players with name cache. They can’t offer everyone a piece of the TV deal or their own team down the line.
There are certainly soccer fans who will see this news and be in the “good riddance” group, aware that the next signing of an aging star only cements what those around the globe think of MLS. That MLS doesn’t need these kinds of names anymore, it can just be a league that develops its own or has some sharp signings from Central or South America and smaller European nations to build its teams.
It definitely could be, but there are still a lot of places around the league that could use a boost in ticket sales that these names still do bring. Apple could probably use the slight tick-up in subscriptions, though clearly, they’re planning on more than a tick if the terms of Messi’s deal are true. If MLS is simply a league that develops talent and then sells off its biggest names every year, there’s a definite ceiling on what kind of niche it carves out in the sporting scene here. It would certainly be the only major pro league that does that in the US. Messi’s arrival is still meant as a sign that it’s aiming to be something more.
And maybe that’s all MLS ever could be. While some execs probably dreamed of the boom that a Messi would provide on TV or in their home stadiums, however brief, those kinds of signings may well not be an option if Saudi Arabia is truly determined to throw around its financial weight.
But then, ask Chicago Fire fans if no longer getting to watch Shaqiri waddle around the field is that much of a loss.
What Messi MLS is getting is another question. Make no mistake, they’re not getting World Cup/Argentina Messi. They’re getting some version of PSG Messi that spends 75 percent of the match walking around waiting for the ball to come to him. That doesn’t mean he won’t tear the league to pieces in the other 25 percent. But all MLS needs is a couple of highlight reel runs and goals to pitch him as an attraction that can’t be missed. They’ll get that for sure. And you can have it for $75 on Apple TV.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he continually defends The Power Cube.