Mr. Zitzmann, Lionel Messi has announced his move to Miami. This surprised many football fans – you as a brand expert too?

No, actually not. Rumors surrounding Saudi Arabia may have been high following his sponsorship deals there, but Messi made the wiser decision as a brand with Miami. He’s now entering a pop-culture environment that, while not having the emotional romance of a Barcelona return, reinforces his role as a global football ambassador and fan magnet. The US is the fastest growing international football market for the next five to ten years and Messi has shown before his first game that he can take that growth to the next level.

Why Miami? There would also have been other clubs in the USA that would have been more attractive in terms of sport…Soccer in the USA is actually a “pocket market”. So there are an incredible number of cultural and socio-economic differences between cities and regions in the country – and thus also for the communities of the clubs. Similar to Los Angeles, Miami is the gateway to Central and South America. Miami is home to many Hispanic speakers, and football plays a much larger role in their homelands than in other more conservative regions of the interior of the United States. Miami is also a capital for sport and lifestyle: Many stars live there, there is a premium NBA team with the Miami Heat, and Formula 1 is a guest every year with its biggest event. Miami is also one of the most iconic cities in the USA due to many worldwide blockbusters. So it’s not just a regional location, but a growing international hub. The package has made it interesting for the Messi brand, coupled with the fledgling club’s ambitions and David Beckham as co-owner. Besides Miami, only Los Angeles would have been a good to better alternative.

… is partner and managing director of the agency Jung von Matt Sports. Zitzmann has a degree in sports economics and before Jung von Matt Sports worked for the rights marketer Sportfive, the ATP and the UEFA Champions League, among others. He is also a member of the FC St. Pauli Digital Advisory Board and an honorary board member of Sheffield FC – the oldest football club in the world.

On the other hand, there are already an incredible number of stars in the USA. So how important is Messi’s transfer to MLS?Extremely important. In retrospect, the fact that Messi decided against Barcelona and the money from Saudi Arabia shows the increased relevance of the MLS. With the transfer, Miami has just sevenfold its social media reach from one to 7.6 million followers and can now reach more people than any single NFL, NHL or MLB team. It is, as of today, one of the largest social media followings in the entire sporting country USA. The importance can already be quantified from this. And hopefully one or two good years can also be expected from Messi in terms of sport.

Did the marketing opportunities with Messi outweigh the sporting reasons? No, the sporting expectations of him are likely to still be high. The Messi brand primarily plays soccer and takes place on the soccer field. That’s where you want to see him first and foremost.

The change is also interesting from a financing point of view because numerous sponsors are involved. Adidas and Apple, for example, now give Messi a share of the sales – which, if things go well, could add up to hundreds of millions of euros. Why do big corporations accept such deals? This is an example of the innovative, collaborative and creative thinking of the US sports market. In the USA, the principle of being able to participate in the joint success applies, even if there are a few regulatory hurdles. Of course, this also harbors dangers, because Messi will not only break the previous salary structure, but will also attract free riders with this shared revenue model. However, the US market basically works a little differently. The principle of “gravity of greatness” works there. The best example is the Super Bowl. They tell themselves that they close the biggest event, the biggest deals, the most expensive sponsorship deals. And at some point you actually reach this size through good storytelling. And because size attracts size. MLS is doing the same thing now, bringing in the country’s biggest superstar, which immediately boosts the reputation of the league and the product. And Apple also benefits from this in the triangle of sports media sponsors, who can catapult the value of their exclusive MLS broadcasting rights upwards with Messi.

Would deals like this be made if there weren’t a World Cup in the USA in three years’ time? On the one hand, the economic growth of US soccer is quite natural because the USA is the most important sports and entertainment market in the world. In addition, the World Cup is definitely a catalyst for the existing growth. And this growth in the US cannot be compared to that in the Middle East, where football is primarily of geopolitical and national importance. In the US, football is primarily a fan and media market. This is also confirmed by the efforts of top European clubs, who have been traveling to the USA in the summer for years to win new fans through cooperation with MLS teams and universities. And yes: The prospect of the World Cup is certainly a game-changing position here, but not the only one.

How will the USA position itself in competition with Saudi Arabia, which is luring the stars with more and more money? The USA will go its own way and, due to the existing upper salary limit, will not only develop its attractiveness through money and salaries. Rather, it is about creating an orchestra of strong players, media and club brands as well as access to the most important entertainment and advertising industry in the world. For the MLS, it must also be about the sporting competitiveness in the American association Concacaf in order to be able to send a team to the FIFA Club World Cup.

In the past, world stars have repeatedly switched to the MLS: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Beckham – and in the 1970s players like Franz Beckenbauer and Pelé. So why has US soccer not yet reached the size of American football, ice hockey or basketball? Such comparisons are always difficult. Basically, of course, this is due to the history of a sporting nation. In terms of sports culture, football is not originally anchored in the USA and there are only a few international superstars to this day. Unlike in Europe, the first and still most important stars in US soccer are women, not men. The US women are multiple world champions and the NWSL is a world-renowned premier league. And Megan Rapinoe is perhaps the most important ambassador for women’s football. In addition, the American leagues in basketball, baseball and ice hockey are global export hits and the respective benchmarks for their sports. The NFL is now the second-biggest TV sport in Germany. Then there’s college sports. In addition, it is also not advisable to constantly orient yourself to other and larger leagues. Football must also go its own way in the USA. The World Cup is definitely providing a boost here – and at the same time there is a slight global turn away from China in the European football industry, which has mainly developed as a result of Corona and the entry ban. I believe that the MLS will become number three in the USA in the medium term – after the NBA and the NFL. So he will overtake basketball and ice hockey. Not as a TV sport, but through local fan growth. And as I said, football is already the biggest participatory team sport for women.

Are US soccer fans really interested in the MLS or, above all, in the big top European teams? We examined this in a recent study and the MLS is actually by far the most relevant league for US fans. Far behind comes the Premier League and then the Spanish La Liga. Americans almost always support their club on the doorstep. This creates a strong regionalization around the clubs.

Why is that? Studies show something different with Asian fans… American fans are very event-loving, community-oriented and socially committed. And this fan culture is also partly reflected in other US sports. It’s completely different in China or the Middle East. On the one hand, because life apart from sport generally takes place much less in emotionally networked communities, on the other hand, because sport as an entertainment offer generally has a different historical and cultural character there. That was also very interesting to observe at the World Cup: The largest fan base present for Argentina came from Pakistan. Because there, too, there are no local heroes or a national team that has already won the World Cup. American branding, on the other hand, works very strongly via tribes, i.e. via groups of people who are interlocked and networked and who together can trigger a hype. The best case in MLS is by far the reigning champion LAFC. In less than five years, they managed to get an entire city behind them that previously only knew the Lakers, the Dodgers or the Rams.

This article first appeared here on “Capital”.