Needless to say, Lionel Messi’s arrival in Major League Soccer has exceeded any possible expectations — both on the pitch and on the business side.
Each of those aspects played out in full effect as “Messi Mania” arrived in the Garden State last week, when the New York Red Bulls hosted Inter Miami Aug. 26 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison for Messi’s MLS regular season debut.
The 36-year-old Argentinian soccer legend – perhaps the greatest to ever play – first played for Inter Miami in early August while the league was participating in the Leagues Cup, a North American tournament between MLS and Mexican soccer league LIGA MX. Messi instantly announced his arrival to MLS and North America with a perfect, decisive free kick that set social media abuzz.
Inter Miami went on to win that tournament, and Messi has been nothing short of magnificent since joining the team. He has notched 11 goals and three assists in first 10 appearances, which have included nine wins, one draw, no losses, that aforementioned title run, as well as a clinching a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final in late September. Unfortunately, one of those goals and wins came at the expense of the Red Bulls, who were defeated by Inter Miami 2-0 in front a record-crowd of 26,276 that jammed Red Bull Arena on Aug. 26.
But that magical moment required quite a bit of a wait, with Messi entering the match in the 60th minute.
As NJBIZ reported in early August, the Red Bulls were gearing up for impending Messi Mania, as the match was his only scheduled New Jersey/New York appearance as well as his MLS regular season debut. That sent secondary ticket prices soaring leading up to the game. And all of it set the stage for a buzzing day in Harrison — the anticipation mixed with the delayed entrance boiled the crowd into a fever pitch as they chanted for their hero, Messi, to enter the match.
The patience paid off as Messi delighted the crowd with a goal in the 89th minute en route to the Inter Miami victory.
“While we were extremely disappointed by the result on the pitch, the excitement leading into the match and the incredible fan experience delivered throughout the evening was unprecedented,” Red Bulls General Manager Marc de Grandpré told NJBIZ in a statement. “The sold-out Red Bull Arena was a perfect setting for soccer fans to experience a historic evening. We look forward to building on this momentum to continue growing the engagement with our community and local soccer fans.”
A slew of notable figures were in attendance including Gov. Phil Murphy, Carmelo Anthony, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Edie Falco, tennis star Elena Rybakina, Eric LeGrand and his Eric LeGrand Bourbon partner Brian Axelrod. A number of Hip-Hop legends were on-hand as well as – Darryl McDaniels (DMC), Fat Joe, Roxanne Shante, Naughty by Nature’s Vin Rock, DJ Kay Gee, and more – as the Red Bulls celebrated 50 years of hip-hop and debuted a new 2023 third kit, the Freestyle Kit.
Messi’s anticipated arrival had social media buzzing with his eventual debut and then goal cutting through a busy summer weekend, which included Aaron Rodgers’ debut at MetLife Stadium during the New York Jets/Giants preseason game. It reinforced the cultural impact of the player.
And the Messi effect on the business and media/social media side was undeniable for the Red Bulls.
In the NJBIZ preview piece, the Red Bulls offered New Jersey Lottery as the perfect example of the boost its longtime business partners got from the Messi match.
New Jersey Lottery was slated to be the presenting sponsor for this match before Messi’s signing was announced. So, they essentially hit the jackpot. An example of that priceless promotion can be found in the featured image at the top of this story.
“The New Jersey Lottery is used to the unexpected happening and sponsoring the Red Bulls game that ultimately featured soccer Lionel Messi is the latest example,” the New Jersey Lottery told NJBIZ in a statement. “It really shows ‘Anything Can Happen in Jersey.’ While the Lottery lucked with our involvement in this big event, the biggest winners were once again our players. Through a social media sweepstakes, we gave away a handful of tickets to our suite so Lottery players could experience the excitement up close and in-person.”
The moment also marked continue momentum for the sport in North America broadly, but especially here in New Jersey, which will join New York as a Host City for the 2026 World Cup — and with officials hoping Met Life Stadium will host the championship match.
“Any time that there’s a major sporting event, especially with soccer as it’s growing in popularity across the country,” Bailey Lawrence, deputy press secretary for the governor, told NJBIZ. “And given the governor’s specific interest in the sport, it’s something that we’re always very excited about. We definitely see all of these opportunities, especially in the context of the World Cup in 2026, as having potential tremendous economic impacts.”
The governor and First Lady Tammy Murphy are founding owners of National Women’s Soccer League team Gotham FC.
Lawrence noted that when these huge, internationally watched events come to New Jersey, the governor tries to be on-hand, as he was Saturday night in Harrison.
“He’s very interested in and made an effort to make sure that he’s there, that he is involved, and that he sees first-hand the kind of excitement and impact it can generate,” said Lawrence. “So, he’s definitely at the forefront of a lot of these major events, especially as he sees how important they are to the economic impact and future of the state.”
During his monthly News 12 New Jersey call-in show, “Ask Governor Murphy,” on Thursday, the governor was asked about the notable summer events recently in New Jersey, including the Messi match.
“Gov. Murphy, what was the biggest event in New Jersey this year – Taylor Swift, Messi, or Bruce Springsteen?” a viewer asked.
“It’s a great question,” said Murphy. “I’d give them a three-way tie. I was at all of them. We saw Messi last week in Harrison. We went three nights to Taylor. I’m doing three nights with The Boss.”
Not too shabby for Messi, MLS, and the Red Bulls to be grouped in the same esteem with acts such as Springsteen and Swift.
It has been quite a summer here in the great Garden State and last Saturday night at Red Bull Arena – Messi’s second appearance in Harrison and first as an MLS player – was one for the ages, and likely a pivotal benchmark moment in the continued growth and momentum of the MLS and the Red Bulls.