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Messi's MLS signing to benefit league, Whitecaps and sport generally

Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi said he planned to sign with Inter Miami
Lionel Messi's involvement in the MLS is expected to heighten interest in soccer in North America

News that Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi plans to sign with Major League Soccer's (MLS) Inter Miami sent shockwaves and excitement through the North American soccer community. 

Vancouverites who have been involved in soccer management and professional sports ownership told BIV today that they are were surprised with Messi's announcement and believe his involvement with the league will give a huge lift to interest in soccer across the continent. 

The timing could not be better, they said, because Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are set to co-host the 2026 World Cup, with Vancouver being one of the host cities. 

"This harkens back to Pele signing with New York [Cosmos in 1975] and David Beckham signing with L.A. [Galaxy in 2007,]" said Arthur Griffiths, who is president at Arthur Griffiths & Associates, has a long history as a sports industry executive and is a former owner of the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Grizzlies. 

No firm compensation details have been released but it has been reported that Messi will get a slice of the MLS and Apple's broadcast partnership. German sportswear giant Adidas - long a league sponsor - is also said to be chipping in some money to make the signing possible. 

Griffiths said that he has never heard of such an arrangement, where a league would get involved compensating a player to sign with a team. 

"This is definitely new," he said. "It just goes to show you the creativity involved, because everybody's going to benefit."

Much of that benefit will come in the form of increased sales for sports merchandise, and for higher ticket sales.

MLS commissioner Don Garber told the New York Times in November 2007 that Beckham's signing in Los Angeles gave a huge bump to sales for MLS merchandise.

“We have sold more than 300,000 Beckham Los Angeles Galaxy jerseys, which was 700 times the number of Galaxy jerseys sold in 2006," he said in 2007.

Griffiths told BIV that he was not sure of the arrangement in the MLS, but the situation in the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Football League is that teams share merchandise sales revenue when the merchandise is sold outside of a certain distance from a home arena. 

Sales for Elias Petterson jerseys at stores in Kelowna, for example, would see some revenue go to the Vancouver Canucks and some revenue go to each of the NHL’s other teams.

That revenue-sharing means that the Vancouver Whitecaps are likely to benefit from Messi being in the league because sales for Messi jerseys across the world could be substantial.

The team would also likely see a significant spike in attendance when Inter Miami plays at BC Place, and attendance may pick up for other games as well. 

Former Vancouver Whitecaps president and player Bob Lenarduzzi said that when Miami plays in Vancouver it is possible that there will be enough interest for the Whitecaps to open the stadium's upper bowl.

The Whitecaps this year have struggled to fill much of the lower bowl. Other teams, however, have seen strong attendance, and Lenarduzzi said having Messi in the league will enable all teams to push up attendance to new levels. 

He also equated Messi's signing with Inter Miami to Pele signing with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

"Pele's name transcended the sport that he played," Lenarduzzi said. "If you mentioned soccer, you would think of Pele."

Part of Pele's legacy, Lenarduzzi said, was inspiring North Americans to be excited about soccer, which was something that they hadn't been before.

One difference between the two signings, he said, is that the state of soccer in North America is on much stronger legs today than it was in the 1970s. 

He noted that one sign of strength for the league is that when the MLS last month awarded an expansion franchise to San Diego, the ownership group paid an eyebrow-raising US$500 million fee to join the league.

Both Lenarduzzi and Griffiths said that they believe Messi's move to the MLS could prompt a wave of high quality players around the world who did not previously consider playing in the league to give it serious consideration. 

The decision to bring those players to the MLS, however, lies with owners who would have to pay them. 

The MLS allows teams to have a maximum of three designated players that owners can pay unlimited sums.

When Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy, his base salary was US$6.5 million per year, but he was also paid a percentage of the team's revenue, which bumped his total club compensation up to around US$50 million over five years. Including money he made from sponsorship deals off the field, endorsements, appearances and licensing, he reportedly made about US$255 million over six years, (including one year of a contract extension), according to Forbes.

Beckham’s playing-days windfall was sufficient for him to finance becoming one of Inter Miami’s owners. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps' designated players include Ryan Gauld, who makes about US$2.5 million per year, Sergio Córdova, who makes a reported US$1.05 million per year, and Andres Cubas, who makes US$900,000.

The Whitecaps rank No. 23 out of the MLS's 29 teams in total compensation for players, according to The Province.  

Players such as Messi and Beckham are, however, in a class of their own, Lenarduzzi said. 

He would not speculate on whether Messi's signing with Miami would inspire owners at teams such as his former club to open their wallets sufficiently to attract star players.

Vancouver Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett did not immediately respond to an email from BIV. Greg Kerfoot owns the largest stake in the team and he is well known for not speaking with media. The team did not immediately respond to BIV’s request to speak with CEO Axel Schuster. 

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