Lionel Messi's Inter Miami arrival brought a new era of celebrity stardom, transcending MLS, soccer and sports – CBS Sports

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Soccer may not be America’s pastime, but when FIFA makes the announcement that the World Cup final is coming to the New York metropolitan area, it still makes waves. Local media with national reach, despite having no regular habit of covering the world’s most popular sport, notice. The New York Daily News’ back cover splash, as a result, was a perfect example of how an American publication might report the news. MetLife Stadium is first addressed as “home of Giants and Jets,” a nod to the NFL teams that dominate the sports landscape. There’s a sizable, but small picture of the stadium, too.

The dominant image, though, is of Lionel Messi flanked by teammates, all in Argentina kits and with winners’ medals around their necks as he hoists the World Cup trophy in Dec. 2022.
⚽️🍎🌎 GOAAAL! 2026 FIFA World Cup final to be held at MetLife Stadium — home to the Jets, Giants

Soccer’s biggest match comes to New York and New Jersey. Mayor Adams, Gov. Phil Murphy reacthttps://t.co/3A646ZZvY4 pic.twitter.com/LvnE8ofVEy
Messi’s legacy speaks for itself — it’s why Inter Miami, MLS, Adidas and Apple embarked on an unprecedented revenue-sharing deal to land his signature last July. It comes as no surprise that soccer fans in the U.S., estimated to make up 32% of the population, would greet the sport’s biggest star ever with open arms. The fact that he plays in front of sold-out stadiums at home and away games and that more than 110,000 subscribed to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+ before his first Miami game meant the desired effect was achieved.
Yet, Messi’s reach extended much further than the subsection of Americans who watched soccer. He seamlessly integrated himself into the national cultural discourse, just by showing up. Even if you were not seeking Messi mania, Messi mania would find you. Mainstream media outlets for which soccer, let alone MLS, was rarely a topic of interest were suddenly running stories on how Messi’s arrival led a man to cry tears of joy and buses drove around New York City for weeks with his face plastered on their sides, advertising a chicken sandwich bearing his name at the Hard Rock Cafe.
A few months into the Messi experience, the player’s stay in the U.S. has already added an unexplored layer to his already undeniable star power — and a new chapter in American celebrity culture.
Messi has been a global star for the better part of two decades and has not gone entirely unrecognized by U.S. audiences, regardless of soccer’s reputation in the country. Any time he was in the U.S. for matches with Argentina, his former club Barcelona, or even a one-off charity match in Chicago in 2013 titled “Messi and Friends,” fans would turn up in numbers. Messi living here, though, is an entirely different story.
There’s a new level of proximity to someone who has historically been distant, and so his arrival offers a new perspective for U.S.-based onlookers on who Messi is, or at least what his famous persona is. He’s a blank canvas of sorts as a celebrity —  he rarely speaks to the media and has done so only once since arriving in the U.S., leaving a lot of room for exploration. As it turns out, he’s acutely different from traditional definitions of celebrity in American culture.
“Messi is a different type of athlete celebrity for U.S. culture,” Charlotte Howell, an associate professor of film and television at Boston University, told CBS Sports. “We know what it looks like for basketball stars, we know what it looks like for football stars,” but the previously Europe-based soccer star coming to the U.S. is a fairly new phenomenon, she noted.
Messi is also writing a new chapter of the book on the Miami-based sports star, which reached new heights from 2010 to 2014 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on the books at the NBA’s Miami Heat. The basketball trio were already much-embraced figures in the U.S., especially James, whose ESPN special revealing his move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Heat (aptly titled The Decision) peaked at 13.1 million viewers. It means something very different to be the South American soccer star who spent the entirety of his adult life in Europe than it does to be a born-and-bred American sports celebrity, though.
The fixation on everything about Messi’s lifestyle, from his embrace of South Florida phenomena like shopping at Publix to his sartorial choices and the bodyguard that bounces up and down the sideline with him during games, have introduced new markers of celebrity culture to American audiences.
messi been in Florida for ONE month dawg😭😭 pic.twitter.com/3vgHyidCi1
Much like he stands out on a soccer pitch, Messi also sticks out with every banal decision that incidentally becomes public information. It’s why the pizza he enjoyed on a seemingly ordinary Friday night last September generated so much conversation and controversy (and not only because it accidentally confirmed he would sit out Miami’s game at Atlanta United the following day). The Argentina-style fugazza is a far cry from what Americans would consider a regular pizza, but as Howell notes, these are not necessarily unusual choices considering who he is. They are simply new to those of us who, for the first time, share a country of residence with Messi.
Breaking down Lionel Messi’s Friday night “pizza” by @NotAlexis . 🍕

Buckle in because you’re about to go on a journey! 😂 pic.twitter.com/g1k5ujuwyV
“We would not necessarily expect American sports celebrities to be wearing that going out,” or doing any of these things, she said. “But it’s very of the cultures he’s coming from and so that distinction really makes him stand out.”
There are two comparable examples of soccer stars who charted this terrain before Messi did — fellow World Cup winner Pelé, who was with the New York Cosmos from 1975 to 1977 in the NASL, and David Beckham, who played for the LA Galaxy from 2007 to 2012. Both arrivals were met with much fanfare, with Beckham feeling like the easier comparison considering the recency and the fact that the Englishman now happens to be an owner of Inter Miami.
Things are notably different for Messi than they were for both Pelé and Beckham, though. Soccer has grown considerably in the U.S. since both players came and left, with a rush of investment in both the domestic game and its international counterparts. There are now 20 soccer-specific stadiums in this country, 17 of which were opened after Beckham’s first MLS game, and the U.S.’ biggest media companies have splashed billions of dollars in the last decade and change to broadcast soccer games at home and around the world. There’s now more soccer to watch and with the invention and popularization of streaming services and social media, being exposed to the game is easier than it has ever been (CBS even has its own 24-hour soccer-specific streaming network in CBS Sports Golazo Network).
The pool of people in the U.S. that could be exposed to Messi is much larger than it once was, and the audience has responded in equal measure. More than 25 million people watched the 2022 World Cup final on TV in the U.S., a viewership record beat only by the U.S. women’s national team’s win at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and almost 20 million additional people streamed the match. It helped that once the U.S. team were knocked out in 2022, Messi’s story was easily the most captivating for those already plugged in.
“Messi finally winning the World Cup helped to rise him to prominence,” Howell noted. “We are a country that loves nationalism-based sports spectacle. … [and] World Cups have grown in popularity and significance and especially with the promotion and the hype around it, it gathers a lot of attention, especially [in 2022] with the narrative this is the best U.S. men’s national team in generations, so there was a lot of hype, a lot of buy in, which then when the U.S. team went out, it was, ‘Okay, we’re in this now. Where does our attention go?,’ and a lot of it went to to Messi and Argentina.”
The nature of the modern-day internet ensures there are a multitude of ways to extend the popularity of Messi’s celebrity status. After all, only social media could give us Messi montages on TikTok set to Taylor Swift songs during the 2022 World Cup, which started a month after her Grammy-winning “Midnights” album came out.
It means, long before Messi touched down at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to begin his American journey, he was well-positioned to create a cultural firestorm. That includes the unique narrative of Messi’s celebrity in the U.S., but it also includes the parts of his persona that mean he was always going to fit right in.
Messi’s unique demonstrations of stardom may be the defining features of his American adventure for those consuming it, but they are not actually the foundational elements of his celebrity. It’s the same as it is for every star one could possibly name: he has a well-documented track record of notching one seemingly impossible achievement after another.
“Even if you don’t know anything about soccer, most people know that Messi is the GOAT, and they have some sense of his level of just outstanding, decades-long achievement,” Howell said. “Celebrity culture in the U.S. is always about that dialogue of unattainable, idealized persona.”
Messi does not project traditional American ideas of grandeur like Beckham did. He and wife Victoria were welcomed to Los Angeles in a splashy photo op with movie stars like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tom Cruise and then-wife Katie Holmes, the latter two of whom were a popular subject of media coverage during their short-lived marriage. There is still an inherent glamor to Messi’s status as the greatest in his profession, though, which lends itself easily to familiar habits of celebrity observation.
Messi may not have had staged opportunities to pose with celebrities so far, but the stars have turned up in big media markets to see him for themselves. A host of sports stars including tennis icon Serena Williams and basketball great (and one-time Miami superstar himself) LeBron James turned up for his first game in Miami, while the likes of Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio and multiplatinum recording-artist Selena Gomez were some of the many who were in attendance when Miami played LAFC last September. Messi’s wide-ranging appeal is the latest example in the relatability factor fans consistently seek from stars, offering the rest of us a chance to find something in common with those we have little in common with.
That concept translates to our obsession with Messi’s off-field behavior, such as the aforementioned Publix trip that was as much a welcome to Miami as the official unveiling at DRV PNK Stadium. It also seamlessly ties in with another familiarity of American celebrity culture: the desire to put one’s money where their fandom is, and for others to capitalize on every ounce of celebrity they can.
It’s a natural meeting point of public excitement and consumerist culture that sometimes feels inoffensive and natural, like Messi’s first Super Bowl appearance through Michelob Ultra’s 2024 commercial, or other times wholesome, like when a Cincinnati bakery sold cookies with the star’s face on them before he came to town. Frequently, though, it feels like an example of cold, hard capitalism. Ticket prices for MLS games with Messi go for hundreds of dollars more than other games in the league, which leads some like Sporting Kansas City to book out bigger venues to host him and others like the New York Red Bulls to force consumers to buy multi-game tickets to get access to the day when Miami’s in town.
It also means that every time Messi plays, there’s a festival-like atmosphere before you enter the stadium where the streets and parking lots are lined with independent vendors selling merchandise, offering a new spin on the longstanding American tradition of tailgating. The demand is seemingly always there, regardless of the venture. Elena Alvarez, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Partnerships for Seminole Hard Rock told CBS Sports that their Messi Chicken Sandwich, a knock-off of the milanesa sandwich popular in South America that launched at roughly the same time as Messi arrived in the U.S., is now their best-selling menu item ever.
It took little time for the Messi effect to settle into life in the U.S., which itself is not a surprise. The long-lasting impact of his stay in the States are still too early to determine — whether he single-handedly puts soccer on the map in the U.S. is something we will have to wait to find out, but he is far from the only stakeholder with a say in it at this point. No matter the importance many will attach to Messi’s stint in the American sports landscape, the Messi experience is so far an exercise in the short term. Be they fans, fellow stars, those looking to make a profit or somewhere in between, the early months of Messi’s American journey have forced everyone to live in the present and capture whatever glimpses they can before it’s too late.
Doing so, Messi’s new — and perhaps final — audience has found one more reason to quip that the star is “just like us.” His move to Miami was motivated by enjoying the last few years of his career, rather than competing at the highest levels. It would only be fair for the rest of us to have some fun with it, too.
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