Messi mania hitting fever pitch ahead of MLS opener - ESPN

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Messi mania hitting fever pitch ahead of MLS opener - ESPN

Lionel Messi's first full season as an Inter Miami player begins on Wednesday. Kyle Bonagura takes a look at the impact the superstar is already having on MLS.

Lionel Messi's first full season as an Inter Miami player begins on Wednesday. Kyle Bonagura takes a look at the impact the superstar is already having on MLS.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Outside the front door of Argentino Las Olas, a seven-year-old restaurant serving empanadas and other Argentine dishes, is a large poster of Lionel Messi palming the World Cup.

"Bienvenido Capitan," it reads. Welcome Captain.

The inside walls are nearly entirely covered by pictures and signs honoring the nation from which the restaurant draws its inspiration. Soccer memorabilia is everywhere, and Messi's presence looms large.

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When Messi guided his country to its first World Cup triumph since 1986, Argentino Las Olas was packed. The correlation between Argentina's success and the success of Argentine restaurants was clear as day. However, the boost that came with the World Cup run was expected to taper off once the excitement died down. And at most places, it did.

In Fort Lauderdale, it would have, too. Except, of course, Messi moved to town -- and Argentino Las Olas has evolved into a gathering place to watch him play for Inter Miami CF, which plays its home games 6.5 miles up the road. Ownership expects a busy day on Wednesday as Miami hosts Real Salt Lake (8:10 pm ET, Apple TV+, MLS Season Pass) in the Major League Soccer season opener.

The economy of Messi is far-reaching and unquantifiable. His appeal is the only reason Inter Miami -- the worst team in MLS before Messi arrived last season -- was incentivized to hit the road for a preseason world tour that went from El Salvador to Dallas to Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and, finally, Japan before returning home to cap off the slate with a friendly against Messi's boyhood club, Newell's Old Boys, last week to prepare for the season.

It was an ambitious lineup that Miami was assuredly well-compensated for, but one that was also designed to serve as a marketing vehicle -- for Inter Miami and MLS. From that standpoint, the tour fell short, as Messi's lack of availability and Inter Miami's unimpressive performances marred what was expected to function as something more celebratory.

On Feb. 4, Messi sat out Miami's game against the Hong Kong XI, leading to a cascade of boos and public criticism by the local government of the event's organizer, Tatler XFEST Hong Kong, which went on to express its own "extreme disappointment regarding Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez's non-participation."

The backlash led the Nigeria-Argentina friendly scheduled for March in China to be canceled, and on Monday, two weeks removed from the game, Messi still felt compelled to release a video further explaining his rationale for not playing in the exhibition.

"I have read and heard many things that've been said after the game in Hong Kong," he said. "I wanted to record this video to give you the true version so no one has to continue reading false stories."

He went on to explain an inflamed adductor -- and the concern of further injuring it -- was the reason for his absence, not any number of political theories that might have circulated online.

For MLS, Miami's tour was far from ideal. But it also will have very little impact at home.

"I think when you have a player that's so legendary and still competing, presenting him to the world is something that's very good for a club, Inter Miami," MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN. "It's good for [MLS], but obviously it doesn't always work out as perfectly as you'd like.

"But all told, I think it was an important experience for everybody. I'm sure there'll be some things that they'll learn and perhaps do differently in the years to come. But I certainly hope that Inter Miami tours with Mess and the rest of the club in the years to come, because I think it's great exposure for the club and great exposure for the league."

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Garber pointed out that in the United States, the script is usually flipped. It's big foreign clubs that have looked to the U.S. for exposure as they prepare for their regular seasons, but there is also usually a broad understanding that those preseason exhibitions won't always feature who appeared in the marketing campaigns.

"Players get hurt. Players have to get rest," Garber said. "Everybody's got to remember they're preseason tours, not regular-season games or official competitions. I think the bottom line is international touring is a part of the dynamic in professional soccer. It has been for many years, and there's no shortage of international clubs that come here and play.

"Not every game is perfect, and not every experience is everything that you'd like it to be."

After years of touring with Barcelona, a global tour wasn't outside the norm for Sergio Busquets, either. He understands the merits, but at MLS media availability last month, he also made it clear the priority should be to use those games to prepare for the season.

"For us, it's looking at the balance of the sporting side and also the growth of this club and the revenues and benefitting on the business side," he said. "So we understand that very well. But also we'll compete against great teams that will prepare us to be in a very high level ahead of the season.

"And when it comes time changes and long trips, we have to prepare well for that. The most important thing is being prepared physically for the season."

During his news conference on Tuesday, Inter Miami manager Tata Martino said Messi, Busquets, Luis Suárez and Jordi Alba are all fit for the opener.

As of Tuesday evening, the get-in price through StubHub, the ticket reselling marketplace, was $68, a relatively low price considering the incredible demand for Inter Miami tickets. The average ticket price to see Inter Miami this year -- home or away -- is $275.

Messi's presence is an outsized factor for increased demand leaguewide, but ahead of the season, ticket sales for every MLS team -- even the ones that don't play Miami -- are up, StubHub spokesperson Adam Budelli told ESPN. Leaguewide ticket sales are up roughly seven times year-over-year.

"The demand [to see Messi] is in line with Aaron Judge just a couple years ago for the Yankees was going for the home run record, or last year when LeBron James was going for the all-time NBA scoring record," Budelli said.

After StubHub sold MLS tickets to buyers in nine countries last year, this year that number has risen to 44. For context, StubHub sold tickets for Major League Baseball games to buyers in 45 countries last season. The top 25 in-demand MLS games on StubHub are Miami games, which has seen demand grow by 150 times, Budelli said.

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