Lionel Messi, Inter Miami
Lionel Messi presents his 8th Ballon d'Or in front of Inter Miami fans Via @InterMiamiCF on X/Twitter

The World Cup, the Ballon D'Or and now TIME Magazine's Athlete of the Year. Lionel Messi has dominated the soccer scene for almost 20 years now, but his recent arrival at Inter Miami and the MLS means he's also revolutionizing one of the largest holdouts when it comes to the world's most popular sport: the United States.

Messi's presence on the pitches across the country has attracted an unprecedented number of eyeballs: "On the day of Messi's Inter Miami debut, Apple added some 110,000 U.S. subscriptions to its MLS Season Pass service, according to analytics company Antenna. It was the largest ever single-day spike and a 1,700% increase over the prior day," the magazine recalled.

TIME also put the focus on the way in which Messi infused the league with his larger-than-life aura since day one, recapping how he netter a last-minute free kick to win his first game with the team while stars such as LeBron James and Kim Kardashian watched from the stands.

"At 36, two decades into his unparalleled career, Messi provided a singular stimulus to soccer in America. Attendance, ticket prices, merchandise sales, and viewership soared," reads a passage of the article, which goes on to list other figures and examples illustrating the impact.

TIME also highlights the fact that Messi chose the U.S. over Saudi Arabia, which had reportedly offered him a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but clarifies that his deal with MLS and Inter Miami is far from pennies.

"In addition to the more than $20 million a year Inter Miami would pay him, he would be granted an ownership stake in the team upon retirement and an unprecedented cut of revenues earned by a league media partner—in this case, Apple," TIME recalls.

The timing of his arrival also exacerbates the push for increasing interest in soccer in the U.S., which TIME describes as the "world's most lucrative sports market," as the country gets ready to host some of the most important competitions in the next years: Copa America in 2024, the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025 and the World Cup, in 2026.

Messi is set to at least play the 2024 Copa America. And while he has been repeatedly been consulted about the next World Cup, he has avoided giving a definitive answer. The 36-year-old had initially suggested at the time that the tournament in Qatar would be his last and that he wouldn't be around.

But as time went on, his messaging changed somewhat. "I'm not thinking about the World Cup and I'm not saying 100 percent that I won't be there because anything can happen. Because of my age, the most normal thing is that I won't be there. Then we'll see," said Messi in an interview with Argentina's Star+.

"Maybe we'll do well at the Copa America and everything will work out for us to continue. Maybe not. Realistically it's difficult," he said of the chance of a sixth consecutive appearance in the World Cup. He would be 39 at the time of the World Cup, an age in which most soccer players have already retired or are not able to count themselves among the world elite.

However, regardless of what happens in the future, TIME highlights that Messi's impact has already been transformative: "the U.S. is now a soccer nation, a fútbol nation," it concludes.

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