You could call them the Lionel Messi money trains.
Late Friday afternoon the first of six Brightline trains over a two-hour span — each carrying up to 230 passengers from Miami and West Palm Beach — pulled into the downtown Fort Lauderdale station to offload hardcore soccer fans eager to see the superstar’s first on-field appearance for Inter Miami CF.
While “Messi mania” has been well-chronicled since the global soccer icon signed his contract earlier this month, his arrival in Fort Lauderdale, where the team maintains its temporary home, is raising economic expectations among businesses similar to those brought by NBA star LeBron James’s decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat more than a decade ago.
A so-called “LeBron effect” gripped the city as new restaurants and bars sprung up in downtown Miami. Hospitality employment soared and ticket and retail clothing sales reached new highs.
Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, center left, holds his new Inter Miami team jersey as he poses with team co-owners Jorge Mas, left, Jose Mas, second right, and David Beckham during a celebration by the team at DRV PNK Stadium last Sunday. in Fort Lauderdale. It came one day after Messi, Major League Soccer and Inter Miami finalized his signing through the 2025 season. He was expected to play Friday in a Leagues Cup match against Cruz Azul. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Tadd Schwartz, president of Schwartz Media Strategies in Miami, a firm that represented Inter Miami co-founder David Beckham between 2014 and 2018, said the Greater Miami area’s status as a sports entertainment destination has “spilled over into Fort Lauderdale.”
“Fort Lauderdale has always been the hidden gem in the tri-county area,” he said. ”Brightline helps with the mobility and I think that Fort Lauderdale really is in a great position to take advantage of this and put itself on the map the same way Miami did getting out of the recession and leveraging off the Lebron James decision.”
Some companies already had business and philanthropic relationships with Inter Miami.
Brightline was among the first to work with Inter Miami to establish business ties before Messi arrived. It operates local transportation links between its Fort Lauderdale station and the DRV PNK Stadium about six miles away. On Thursday night, Brightline illuminated its stations in pink. Inter Miami’s colors are pink and black.
“I’m going to get the same result that Inter Miami has seen, which is sold out tickets,” said Johanna Rojas, Brightline’s senior vice president of partnerships and sales.
She said that when Inter Miami plays in Orlando on Sept. 24, “we expect to sell those trains out as well.”
“He has a global reach – Latin America and local,” she added.
The Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock International, operator of Seminole Gaming and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, signed up Messi in 2021 as an “ambassador” for its worldwide chain of cafes and selected hotels. Commercial campaigns have included a burger and a sandwich in his name as well as clothing merchandise.
Two years ago, AutoNation, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, joined Inter Miami in a cancer-fighting partnership that raised $150,000, said spokeswoman Lisa Rhodes Ryan. The stadium name, which is part of the partnership, is designed to help enhance public awareness of a national fundraising effort started by AutoNation, which overall has raised more than $37 million.
A modern-day Messi effect is expected to spread far beyond South Florida. That includes Orlando, where Jason Siegel, president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, said the Orlando City SC is eagerly awaiting appearances by Messi when Inter Miami comes to town.
“With the popularity of the sport throughout the state of Florida, the team has seen an almost unparalleled level of demand,” Siegel said. “You are talking about an individual who has 480 million Instagram followers. His reach is enormous.”
When Inter Miami and Orlando City play, Brightline, which is close to opening its 170-mile extension from West Palm Beach to Orlando, expects to be moving large numbers of soccer fans between South and Central Florida.
Two years ago, Messi became the first athlete to become a brand ambassador for Hard Rock International. It’s a five-year deal that calls for the “sale of a new collection of Messi-inspired merchandise featuring symbols associated with his prolific career, including the lion, the number 10 from his Barcelona shirt and the forward’s own logo,” the company said.
Two weeks ago, Hard Rock and Messi unveiled a Messi chicken sandwich, which is now outselling the cafe chain’s longtime Legend Burger.
“It’s crazy.” said Elena Alvarez, vice president of sales and marketing for the company’s cafes. “People like the way he is. He is very humble.”
Tourism impact unclear
Visit Lauderdale, the Broward County tourism-promotion agency, said in a statement that Messi’s arrival “will undoubtedly draw sell-out crowds with a global fanbase flocking to Fort Lauderdale’s DRV PNK stadium.”
That stadium, though, has a capacity of around 19,000, including the hasty addition of seating since Messi’s signing lifted the figure from 18,000. At Barcelona’s Camp Nou, where Messi formerly played, the seating is just over 99,000 still, the agency noted that the Fort Lauderdale stadium will remain the team’s headquarters after it moves to its permanent facility in Miami in 2025 or thereafter. The Broward site will also remain a venue for the team’s main practice field and an academy for mentoring younger players.
“Area businesses and hotels are excited to welcome a new wave of international and domestic guests,” the agency noted.
But for all of the media attention, business deals and sales expectations, it’s difficult to project the degree to which the county’s vaunted tourism industry will benefit during the two or three years Messi is expected to wear an Inter Miami uniform.
“It’s too early to tell, way too early to tell,” said Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, Constant national and international media references to Miami don’t help.
“It’s really difficult for us to be able to brand when every single story is about Messi in Miami, and (the team) is called Inter Miami and rarely do they tag that it’s Fort Lauderdale,” Ritter said, “We’d have higher expectations if we could actually get Inter Miami to tell social media followers, or the players whenever they speak on camera that we play in Fort Lauderdale and we really love it here and it’s a great place to be. That would help a lot, but so far that hasn’t happened.”
Schwartz said Fort Lauderdale needs to make it clear that the city is Messi’s home.
“Fort Lauderdale needs to send a message that Messi is not coming to Miami,” he said. ”He’s coming to Fort Lauderdale and how does Lauderdale build a brand around that?”
Talents on the move
A 2017 study undertaken by two scholars at the American Enterprise Institute took a somewhat guarded view of the impact of superstar athletes arriving in new cities.
The study, “Taking My Talents to South Beach (and Back),” focused on “the local economic spillovers” generated by LeBron James in Cleveland, where he started his career with the Cavaliers, then in Miami between 2010 and 2014 when he was playing for the Heat.
The study concluded that James had a “statistically and economically significant positive effect on both the number of restaurants and other eating and drinking establishments” near the arenas where he played.
But the effect was limited to within a mile of each venue, and decayed “rapidly” as one moved farther from each arena. Still, the restaurant numbers were up 13% and employment rose 23% while he was in each city.
In an interview Thursday, study co-author Stan Veuger, a senior fellow at AEI, said that Messi’s arrival in Fort Lauderdale “will be a big deal in the first few weeks for people.”
“I’m skeptical that the MLS has the international appeal to be a sustained source of international tourism,” he said. “In general it’s difficult to transform the economy of a major metro area like Miami.”
“Lebron is a bigger deal to Cleveland than Messi is to Miami,” Veuger added. “Obviously it’s great for the pubs down the street.”
A bet on fan appeal
Yet, restaurateurs all over the region have expectations that Messi will fill their dining rooms and sports bars with soccer fans glued to TV sets at watch parties.
“It’s amazing first of all that he’s coming and we hope it has an effect across the community which we believe it will,” said Emi Guerra, owner of Breakwater Hospitality, operator of six venues in Broward and Miami-Dade counties including The Wharf Fort Lauderdale and The Wharf Miami.
“We have TVs and we always play all of the sports and we hope to have a turnout for his games as well,” Guerra said. “Our goal is to show all of the games in the venues. We hope that that will turn people on to the sport to people who weren’t watching it before.”
Fabio DiMare, co-owner of Argentino Las Olas, a small empanada restaurant, said sales have soared 20% since Messi mania took hold.
“Tomorrow with the game we will be busy, busy because the customers come before and after the game,” he said Thursday.
Growth and development
Some observers believe that Fort Lauderdale has a narrow but unique window to supplement and fine-tune its booming urban development.
Charlie Ladd, president of Barron Real Estate, and whose firm is developing a hotel on Las Olas Boulevard, marveled at how Fort Lauderdale has become home to an international sports star at a temporary stadium without having to spend a billion dollars to build a new one.
“Just by luck we land one of the major soccer stars in the world,” he said. “You couldn’t have made this stuff up.”
“The shame is it’s a temporary thing before they go down to Big Brother,” Ladd said, referring to Miami.
But, he added “people are a lot more comfortable going to a soccer game” on Fort Lauderdale’s Commercial Boulevard than “trying to go to a baseball game on (State Road) 836” in Miami’s Little Havana.
“It’s hard to say, but it will bring familiarity for people coming from Dade that didn’t get up here,” Ladd added. “Our downtown has changed dramatically in the last couple of years.”