Lionel Messi, considered by many to be the greatest football player of all time, is a global superstar. Ten La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, seven Ballon d’Or awards, one World Cup and millions of fans in every corner of the planet; his success on the pitch over the past two decades can only compare to his status off it. When a team signs Messi, they do not just sign one of the best players in the history of the sport; they sign one of its biggest celebrities.

Forget Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson or any other Hollywood superstar; the only individual who beats Messi’s 478million followers on Instagram is his greatest contemporary rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 595million. And when Messi announced on Spanish television that he intended to join MLS franchise Inter Miami after departing Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain as a free agent, the club were immediately exposed to the size of his following.

On June 7, the day of his announcement, Miami’s Instagram followers sat at around 900,000. Within 24 hours, it had reached an astonishing 4.5million. During the week commencing June 5, Miami gained more than 6.7million followers — jumping above the Miami Heat in Instagram fame, who were then playing in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.

This week, with his official announcement imminent, Inter Miami have 8.6million followers on Instagram. That is more than any other MLS, NHL, MLB and NFL franchise, the latter considered the United States’ most popular league domestically. For comparison, their Instagram following is significantly more than the combined totals of the New York Yankees (3.3m) and the New England Patriots (4.9m), the MLB and NFL franchises with the largest followings on the platform.

There are now only four U.S. sports franchises with a greater following than Miami’s: the Chicago Bulls (9.8m), Cleveland Cavaliers (12.4m), Los Angeles Lakers (22.8m) and Golden State Warriors (30.8m), reflecting the international fame of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. As for Tiktok, they’ve surpassed the Lakers to become the second-most followed American sports franchise (3.7m), but the success of Curry and the Warriors (5.7m) over the past decade means there is still a way to go before they become the United States’ most popular sports franchise on socials.

It’s significant that this spike comes before Messi has even kicked a ball at the club’s DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. By the time he steps on the field, projected to be in the Leagues Cup clash against Liga MX side Cruz Azul on July 21, Miami might have already surpassed the Bulls and possibly the Cavaliers. Ronaldo, for comparison, joined Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr when they had just over 800,000 followers; they now have more than 15million.

The impact was similar when he left Barcelona for PSG in 2021, with the French club gaining 5.6m followers on social media within a week of the announcement. They now have more than 67m followers, the third most followed football club on the platform behind only FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. While Messi did not achieve the aims of club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and deliver a Champions League, he, along with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, helped to elevate the club’s global status tremendously. According to Forbes, they are worth between $4.2bn and $4.8bn, making them the fourth most valuable football brand in the world by BrandFootball’s metrics. They also have 15 official stores in five countries: France, Qatar, South Korea, Japan and the United States. Miami owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas will hope Messi has a similar immediate effect, albeit probably on a smaller scale.

The trend was similar on Twitter, too, with Inter Miami gaining 371,950 followers during June. For context, they gained 88 followers through May. Messi’s arrival helped them rocket past most of the league, even surpassing five-time MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy to become the second-most followed MLS side on Twitter, behind Atlanta United.

Seeing them snatch the Twitter crown from Atlanta, where newly minted Miami head coach Tata Martino won the MLS Cup in 2018, would be no surprise. With the announcement of the magician from Rosario, Argentina, Miami went from an MLS afterthought to one of the country’s biggest sports social media brands.

(Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)