‘I’m happy. I have friends who are not’: What Inter Miami lost with Messi

<span>Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA</span>
Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

“When the news happened, I had to turn my phone off,” says Mike Longin, a member of the Green Lot Gang Inter Miami supporters’ group, of the moment Lionel Messi’s signing was confirmed.

“My friends, my family, even my pool guy, were all calling – ‘Hey, Messi’s coming. We’re so excited for you.’ It was an exciting day. But there was also from day one, ‘OK, what does this mean?’ We knew it wasn’t going to be the same.”

Related: Apple’s belligerently dull Messi doc shows football’s change from sport to content | Aaron Timms

Aside from a heightened interest in Inter Miami from people who had previously cared little about the club – from pool guys to A-list celebrities – one of the biggest adjustments longtime fans have been forced to make since Messi’s arrival has been the relationship between the franchise and its supporters.

Prior to Messi’s signing, the team would meet on gamedays at the club’s training ground before walking the short distance to DRV PNK Stadium. The players’ route was enclosed by barriers on either side, but fans were welcome – encouraged, even – to congregate along the railings, where they could slap high-fives with their heroes, hunt autographs or pose for selfies. The thronging hordes of new fans and journalists baying for a glimpse of Messi means that ritual is no longer possible. Instead, the squad climb aboard a chartered bus after their pre-match formalities and are driven 150 yards to the stadium.

“What made Inter Miami special early on was we had a great supporter group and ownership was really close with the fans,” Longin says. “My son has thrown an American football back and forth with [co-owner] Jorge Mas. I’ve drunk a beer with David Beckham. The club did a lot to build outreach.

“It’s different now. It’s gone from a family atmosphere to a professional atmosphere, which you’d expect. We were a young club and we grew up overnight.”

The in-stadium experience has shifted, too. Inter Miami had the lowest average attendance in MLS pre-Messi. Gates at DRV PNK stadium have boomed from 12,000 in 2022 to regular sell-outs of the 21,000-capacity arena. But, in the view of some of the club’s hardcore support, a packed stadium has not necessarily yielded a greater atmosphere.

Fans wait, hoping to get an autograph from Lionel Messi.
Fans wait, hoping to get an autograph from Lionel Messi. Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP

“[Messi’s arrival] has had a somewhat negative impact on the match experience, because so many people are only there to see Messi; they don’t care about the rest of the team,” Longin says. “When he’s not playing and he’s in his box in the stand, people are jumping over chairs to try and see him.

We knew things would change. But we weren’t prepared for how much it would change and how much it would feel different. Messi didn’t play our last home game, and it was kind of nice to feel like this was the old stadium, this was the old tailgate. It kind of felt normal, and then Messi walked into his box, and it was, ‘OK, Messi is here. This is the new normal.’”

It is not only the fans who are getting accustomed to the post-Messi world. The journalists who have covered Inter Miami from the club’s inception have also had to reckon with a new reality.

“My life changed completely on 7 June,” says Michelle Kaufman, a reporter for the Miami Herald who has covered soccer in the city since the 1990s.

“Before he got here, there were only a handful of us that covered the team. At most training sessions, there was somewhere between one and three of us. Four would have been a big crowd. Some days I was the only one out there with Phil Neville and the rest of the players. At a typical game there were maybe a dozen, 15 of us in the press box. The minute he got here, everything changed. They have metal detectors for us to walk through at training. For his first training session, there were 500 credential requests. I think 200 were granted. There was a helicopter overhead and a drone. It’s completely different from how it was.”

Related: Is the cost of bringing Lionel Messi to MLS falling on fans?

Such was the demand for media access that the club had to reconfigure the press box at DRV PNK Stadium. Chairs with armrests were ripped out and replaced with stools, upping capacity from 38 to 54, and an auxiliary press area was created elsewhere in the stand to accommodate any overflow. Previously, reporters were able to gather in the locker room post-match to speak to the players and staff. Due to the sheer volume of journalists at games, that is no longer deemed safe. The locker room has become a no-go area for the press.

“All of my highest-viewed stories from recent memory have been ones with Messi in the headline,” Kaufman says. “My workload increased, but my readership increased. The pressure increased. The competition increased. Before, I didn’t have much competition on this beat. Now, all of a sudden, I’m competing with the entire Argentine media scrum and they’re plugged in with Messi and his inner circle.

“I’ve covered a lot of famous athletes in American sports and I’ve covered six World Cups, 14 Olympics. I’ve never seen anything like this Messi mania.”

For all the changes Inter Miami’s move for Messi has wrought on the fan experience, the biggest impact supporters have felt has been the blow to their bank accounts. The club announced recently that season ticket prices will double for 2024.

“That’s caught a lot of people by surprise,” Longin says. “It’s priced out a lot of people. That’s been a tough pill to swallow. People are very upset about it.”

“There’s no longer a feeling that the supporters matter,” says Morgan Guigon, who podcasts as IMCF Traveller. “It’s more a feeling of ‘we’re going to make as much money however we can’. I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. I speak with a lot of different members of the fanbase and a lot of them have the same feeling. A lot of people have had to cancel their season tickets because they can’t afford it.

“It was one of the happiest moments you could have as a fan when we signed Lionel Messi, but you didn’t think they would turn around and go back on everything they’ve said in the four years of the club, that the supporters and those who’ve been there from day one will come first. They’ve gone fully back on that.”

On the field, Messi has unquestionably brought joy to the Inter Miami supporters who’ve followed the club throughout its tumultuous early years – from his dramatic scoring debut in July to August’s Leagues Cup triumph and dreams of MLS glory next year. But the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner’s presence has conjured complex feelings within the fanbase and placed a strain on a once-familial relationship with the club.

“I got to see my team win our first trophy in person,” Longin says. “We’re four years old and we’ve got a trophy now. I am very happy with where we are. I have friends who are not. They expected more. They expected him to play every game and go destroy the league.

“The big hope is that Inter Miami gets a lot of fans out of this; that people come for Messi and stay. I’m not seeing a ton of it yet. A lot of it is pure Messi. In his first game, when he left the field and people left with him, I was heartbroken. It really bothered me. You’re still seeing that.”

“I bought in from day one,” says Guigon. “I’ve had season tickets from the second they went on sale. I was at the ceremony where David Beckham announced he was bringing a club to Miami.

“Since Messi came, it’s been a completely different story. I’ve thought about just walking away and saying, ‘This isn’t it any more.’”