How Inter Miami, MLS can afford Lionel Messi, and how they beat Saudi Arabia's wealth

TOPSHOT - A mural depicting Argentine football player Lionel Messi is pictured in Miami on June 7, 2023. Lionel Messi on Wednesday announced he will sign for Major League Soccer side Inter Miami, choosing the United States as his next destination over a Barcelona reunion or blockbuster deal to play in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Giorgio Viera / AFP) (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Lionel Messi turned down the richest contract in sports history to come to Miami, and as his seismic decision rippled across MLS and American soccer, the reasons for it began to sink in.

Saudi Arabia had offered somewhere between $400 million and $600 million per year, according to reports. Messi, instead, will soon sign a contract with a franchise whose 2022 revenue was a mere $56 million.

But the money will be good in Miami, because MLS rules allow it to be good, and because various American companies will make it better.

Inter Miami, the oft-dysfunctional franchise owned by billionaire businessman Jorge Mas, will pay Messi a base salary that will almost certainly be the highest in MLS. No exact terms have been disclosed, but Messi's number will likely be in the low-to-mid eight figures, significantly more than MLS' current top earner, Chicago's Xherdan Shaqiri ($8.1 million).

And MLS, to be clear, does not have to bend its rules to allow this. They've already been changed on whims over the years. They were reshaped in 2007 to accommodate the league's first true celebrity, David Beckham. Now, 16 years later, a version of the Beckham Rule — now mostly known as the designated player (DP) rule — allows each team to spend limitlessly beyond the salary cap on three players.

That salary cap is $5.2 million in 2023, but various mechanisms, including the DP rule, give clubs flexibility. Team payrolls currently range from $10.5 million to $25.7 million, with Inter Miami at $18.1 million, according to comprehensive data released by the MLS Players Association in May.

Messi will make millions more than Inter Miami's current top earner, striker Josef Martinez ($4.4 million). The real value of his deal will be everything else.

According to various reports, the deal will include equity in the club, which was valued by Forbes in February at $600 million — a number that Messi himself should propel toward $1 billion.

It's unclear how big a stake Messi will receive, but those shares will bump the total value of the deal up to between $125 million and $150 million over two-and-a-half years, according to the Miami Herald. (The deal reportedly includes an option for an additional year, 2026, when the men's World Cup will be played in North America.)

Additionally, hand-in-hand with MLS, Adidas and Apple have discussed commercial arrangements with Messi. The Athletic reported Tuesday that Adidas — which has outfitted and sponsored MLS since its inception, and Messi since he was a teen — had offered Messi a share of any profits related to his MLS involvement.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - JUNE 07: The DRV PNK stadium where the professional soccer team Inter Miami plays games on June 07, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Reports indicate the team has signed Argentine legend Lionel Messi as a free agent. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The DRV PNK stadium where the professional soccer team Inter Miami plays games on June 7, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Both multinational companies recently signed long-term contracts with MLS, through 2032 (Apple) and 2030 (Adidas). Those contracts likely limit the league's ability to capitalize on Messi commercially, but they incentivized the companies to help lure Messi. Apple, for example, should see a dramatic uptick in subscriptions to its MLS Season Pass service, the primary viewing platform for fans in the U.S. and abroad. If Messi receives a cut of that revenue, his full compensation package would be even more lucrative.

Of course, it is still not Saudi money. It's probably not even close. But the U.S. offered two other perks that likely appealed to Messi: long-term economic potential and a relatively calm, cozy, luxurious lifestyle that he can't find anywhere else.

MLS cannot match Saudi money, of course; no capitalistic enterprise will on its own. But a move to America offers Messi the chance to leave a gargantuan legacy, one he can convert into earning potential for decades to come. Countless brands would love to partner with him. The influence and relationships he'll establish in the U.S. will be lasting. He is leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for now, but the long-term financial benefits will be plentiful.

But none of that is Messi's stated reason for coming to Miami anyway. Nor is this a principled stand against the Saudi government and its human rights abuses. (Messi, in fact, still has a lucrative ambassadorial contract with Saudi Arabia's tourism authority.)

This, Messi said Wednesday, is about his wife and kids, and about quality of life.

He was "tired" of the relentless Spanish media, and "unhappy" for two years in Paris. "I'm at a point where I want to step out of the spotlight a bit, think more about my family," he told Mundo Deportivo and Sport. He will be a celebrity in Miami, which boasts a thriving Argentine community, but compared to life in Barcelona or Argentina, and likely in Riyadh, this will feel tranquil.

And familiar. Familiar because Messi has frequently vacationed in South Florida. He has owned condos in grandiose beachside buildings. He will likely savor the relative anonymity of his new life.

"I want to rediscover joy, enjoy my family, my children, the day-to-day," he said Wednesday.

"If it had been a question of money, I would have gone to Arabia or elsewhere," he added, in response to a question about Barcelona. "It seemed like a lot of money to me." But "the truth," he said, "is that my decision was ... not for money."