Lionel Messi’s Path to Licensing
Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami and Major League Soccer was a huge headline this summer, but the star’s licensing path in the U.S. was a long time in the making.
When the former FC Barcelona star player donned a pink jersey for his first game with Inter Miami on July 21, Apple TV+’s MLS Season Pass had more than 110,000 sign-ups, compared to 6,143 the day before. This followed Apple’s $250-million global broadcast deal with MLS and its 30 teams in June.
Inter Miami saw ticket prices soar 500%—reaching up to $1,000 for some field-level seats—and attendance at some games surged to 90% of capacity. As for the team, Inter Miami has won 11 straight games since Messi’s arrival and is eight points away from a playoff spot in the MLS Eastern Conference.
Messi’s road to licensing was carefully charted long before he ever took to the field. MGO Global went public in January, raising $7.2 million and, according to SEC documents, signed a deal for Messi’s global licensing rights in 2021. Under a three-year agreement with Leo Messi Management, MGO is to pay $4.2 million in installments through November 15, 2024. MGO had paid $2.1 million through June 30.
MGO, which operates the Messi Store, said online revenue rose to $226,645 in Q2 ended June 30, up from $96,835 a year earlier. That revenue only covered a short stretch after Messi announced his deal with Inter Miami in mid-July. The Messi Store posted a $511,944 net loss in Q2. MGO’s total revenue jumped to $1.9 million in Q2 from $96,835 a year earlier due largely to sales stemming from its non-royalty bearing licensing agreement and acquisition of direct-to-consumer company Stand Flagpoles in March.
While MGO’s revenue from its Messi agreement is small at this point, the superstar’s arrival caused a flurry of new trademark applications at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. There were applications for his playing number in “Messi 10,” another for “Miami Messi” filed in June by Joshua Jonathan of Englewood, CA, and one for “Messi Soccer Project” filed by Raymond Young & Associates in Canada.
The licensing frenzy around Messi isn’t without precedent in U.S. soccer. There was a groundswell of publicity around the signing of Brazilian soccer star Edson Arantes “Pele” do Nascimento with the New York Cosmos in 1975.
Much like Messi, Pele helped boost attendance at Cosmos games on New York’s Randall’s Island to 21,000 (up from 6,500) and provided a boost to the North American Soccer League (NASL), which ultimately shut down nine years later. Cosmos owner Warner Bros.’ Licensing Corp. of America (LCA) handled licensing for Pele and filed a trademark application in 1975 for shirts and caps. It was granted four years later and then cancelled in 1985, eight years after Pele retired from the NASL.
And trademark activity around superstar athletes seeking to establish their brands is de rigor in professional sports overall. Quarterback Tom Brady, for example, formed TEB Capital Management and sought trademarks in 2019 for “Tom Terrific” for posters, trading cards, printed photographs, and apparel while he was still with the New England Patriots. The proposed trademark was a nickname for former star New York Mets pitcher and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, however, and the application was rejected by the patent and trademark office.
Brady later signed a two-year contract with Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 and had trademark applications for “TB 12” and “Tampa Brady.” His Patriots and later Buccaneers tight end Ron Gronkowski sought a trademark for “Gronk Nation” and has a licensing deal for exercise equipment.
“These superstar athletes are brands unto themselves now,” said Greg Battersby, Managing Member of the Battersby Law Group. “They tend to look at themselves as a brand regardless of the fact they are a member of a team. Their agents want to maximize their brand potential and do as much licensing they can. But that can be a bit of a problem when they separate from the players association, because that’s a collective organization for all the players.”