How To Stop Things Getting Even Messi-er

Darren Young


Darren is a director at The Fan  Experience Company.

He has a background in working on customer service excellence projects in the UK and Europe, and an MBA that included studying in the United States. 

A UEFA Mentor and Fan Experience Company consultant, Darren works with clubs across Europe to improve the match-day experience and increase attendance through engagement with fans.

I was in Cyprus last September speaking at a sports conference. It was especially memorable for me as only three people spoke English – my one and only language – during their presentations throughout the day. Me, obviously, plus Pele (although he was starring in an American Express commercial circa. 1974) and another guy who joined us via video link live from the United States of America.

My talk – which I’m pretty hopeful most people did understand – was all about the importance of the fan experience, and in particular how the consistency of the experience was crucial, as was treating all fans to the best possible day every time. I talked up everything from more fan guides to more staff smiles.

Pele, his own trademark smile resplendent, had earlier told the conference attendees how AmEx could be counted on to pay for pretty much anything (he’d obviously never been to Nottingham) you wanted, even in the 1970s when cash was still a thing. 

The guy from the United States – I can’t recall his name and I won’t name the club – was there to talk about the ticketing prices in the MLS. He said, with considerable pride, that his club charged fans roughly $30 for a home ticket. However, soon they were to play Inter Miami CF – those of co-owner David Beckham, Luis Suarez and above all, Lionel Messi – and for this game, tickets would be $199 he told us, his pride turning to glee.

His shit-eating grin was also apparent – even though the video in his bedroom was a little dark, his white teeth admirably shone through – as he told us how the club were cashing in big time by taking advantage of the Messi-factor. Of course, it meant that only people with access to $199 (or an AmEx card) could attend, and a lot of the regular fans would miss out, but hey, it was Lionel Messi, and he only comes to town once a season (unless they also meet in the play offs).

I felt a little dismayed by this. The audience didn’t share his enthusiasm either. I could sense they also struggled to balance the club’s opportunism with a fair deal for their fans. Fans who may have paid a lot of money every other week to attend games throughout the season where a certain Mr Messi was, indeed, not present. Fans who had been there through thick and thin. Very thin at times (I checked their results) but who had been loyal regardless. It felt like a kick-in-the-teeth for them to see their seats being hungrily snapped up by ‘fans’ who had not been to the stadium before and who, in many cases, didn’t even live in the state.

What else to expect from the capitalist-capital-of-the-world?  And this was not confined to one club by any means. But it didn’t sit well with me at all. I’m more the ‘big games take care of themselves, so focus on the rest’ kind of guy, and this was the polar opposite. This was a club putting nearly all of its eggs in a Messi-shaped basket when it came to priority, and the season’s income. It was minimising the ‘other games’ and thus the fans who attended them, whilst making a song a dance about one game where the star attraction wasn’t even one of their own. They’d banked their fortune from monetising an individual. The yanks did this with King Kong too, and look how that turned out. But no one seemed to have taken those lessons on board.

I wasn’t expecting the Argentine captain to break out and scale the Empire State Building while chewing up fighter planes, but there was, of course, an elephant in the room.

Like Kong, what if Messi didn’t play ball?

My many years’ experience of following and watching football had taught me that players get injured. It’s much more likely that any other form of entertainment. They don’t often have to say ‘Ms Swift can’t perform tonight, but we have Chesney Hawkes instead’. Messi has had a remarkably injury-free reign at the top of world football, but he’s not impervious to the odd strain or knock on the ankle, especially in his old age. If twenty to thirty thousand fans were paying well over the odds to watch him, that kind of made it quite important that he was on the field, didn’t it? But how could they guarantee that? If tickets are sold months in advance, said player might get injured in training the day before the game.

Of course, star players coming to the US isn’t anything new. My English-speaking cohort at the Cyprus conference (Pele, not the other guy) was the main attraction at the New York Cosmos in the 70s, although he was joined by several other crowd-pullers, and Steve Hunt (joking, he was actually the MVP when he was there) as they – ultimately unsuccessfully – tried to get soccer into the mainstream alongside the other spectator sports. I don’t know if the other teams charged more when the Cosmos were the visitors, but I hope not. I’d like to think they had more respect for the regular fans.

Football, soccer, whatever, is the definitive team game. And as more younger fans begin to follow (literally) players and not clubs, it feels like a mis-step to put one player on such a pedestal that the price to watch a game with him in it incurs a six-fold price increase. It suddenly made it all about a player (a great one and possibly the GOAT at that) over the collective experience, and the team on the field. It was almost as if they were walking straight into the trap.

And low and behold, this week’s new contained a story from Hong Kong in the same week that FIFA announced the stadiums for the 2026 World Cup fixtures (with New Jersey getting the final), that told of almost 40,000 fans booing at a game where Messi ‘should’ have played…but didn’t.

For the record, the 8-time Ballon d’Or winner defended himself by saying “Unfortunately this happens in football. In any game it can happen that you can’t play.”

Which is exactly my point. 

He was ‘contracted’ (what could possibly go wrong?) to play at least 45 minutes of a friendly for Inter Miami against a local team. Fans had – surprise – paid a thousand HK dollars (£101) to watch and booed and chanted ‘refund’ as it became clear that their hero was not going to play at all. In what looks like leaving it desperately late to manage expectations, they announced with 10 mins remaining that Messi would not be appearing because of a hamstring injury. The whole thing turned ugly very quickly after that. Even Golden Balls himself could not be heard over the din of ‘angry’ fans as he tried to explain his star players unavoidable absence.

But this is exactly how several MLS teams could be similarly hamstrung in the coming season. Even if Messi was a spring chicken, his being on the field cannot be guaranteed. The potential negatives are obvious, including having to issue refunds for highly priced tickets that presented the club’s biggest payday of the season, or the club having to risk Messi’s fitness to meet contractual obligations. And what about the future? What happens if – bites hand – Messi retires? Or leaves the MLS for other shores?

But more than that, think of the fans.

There is little worse than a stadium full of your loyal fans who have just seen their team lose badly at home.

But one is a stadium full of angry one-off ‘fans’ who have paid a small fortune to watch a game between 22 players where not a single one has the name Messi on his shirt above the number 10.

No one, not even Pele, would have smiled about that.

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