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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Can Lionel Messi Pressure MLS Clubs to Abandon Artificial Turf?

  • Messi Mania boosts MLS ticket demand, merch sales, and viewership — but will teams cater to his playing surface preferences?
  • MLS and NFL players would “much prefer” to play on natural grass, Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya told FOS.
Messi could not play in six MLS stadiums due to their turf surfaces.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Lionel Messi’s arrival in MLS drives a ticket demand boom for not just his home club Inter Miami but also teams around the league whose gate draw will soar whenever the GOAT comes into town.

But what happens when soccer’s biggest global star refuses to play on artificial turf? The 36-year-old Argentinian legend has never played professionally on artificial turf, which is a problem for six MLS franchises. 

Philadelphia Union captain and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya would “love” to see Messi’s preference cause owners to dig into their pockets for all grass fields. Of the six MLS stadiums with artificial turf, four are shared with NFL teams: Seattle’s Lumen Field, New England’s Gillette Stadium, Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, and Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The other two are Vancouver’s BC Place and Portland’s Providence Park.

“I would love it if Messi was able to change some of these football stadiums from turf to grass. As a player, playing on grass is so much better,” Bedoya told FOS. “Between us soccer players and NFL players, I know for a fact we would all much prefer to play on natural grass. That’s another expense for owners to consider, and I know that’s what goes into this.” 

NFLPA president JC Tretter wrote a letter in 2022 calling for the NFL to ban “slit film turf” and another letter sharing injury data on how artificial turf is more dangerous to player health than natural grass. Stars such as Odell Beckham Jr. have publicly blamed turf for injuries, while the NFLPA filed a grievance against the Carolina Panthers over the hardness of the turf at Bank of America Stadium last season.  

MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Athletic in July that “my expectations” were that teams with artificial turf would cater to Messi by installing temporary grass surfaces on top of its turf. Garber also said that whether or not Messi plays on turf will be a decision made by himself and Inter Miami’s coaching staff, meaning Messi’s contract has no related obligations.

But so far MLS teams have gone against the commissioner’s stance as both Charlotte FC and Atlanta United have said they have no plans to install natural grass. This could leave Messi on the sidelines for Inter Miami’s games at Atlanta on September 16 and at Charlotte on Oct. 21.

“If Messi was to come out and say I’m not gonna play the away games that have turf on it, there are quite a few in MLS that play on turf,” said Bedoya, a 2014 USMNT World Cup member. “I don’t think New England Revolution fans would be happy about paying a ticket to see Messi and then he’s not coming to town because they have turf there. Same goes for Atlanta United, or Charlotte, some of these other clubs.”

Major League Soccer’s pitch to secure Messi from a much larger deal offered by Saudi Arabia includes revenue-sharing deals with sponsors Apple and Adidas, as well as a reported equity stake option in Inter Miami. Even as MLS shows Messi “the red carpet,” Bedoya is doubtful to see turf removed from MLS.

“I will applaud Messi if he’s able to do that, I have my doubts of course. I don’t see them catering to Messi like that. I think they’re going to show him the red carpet everywhere he goes but I don’t think they’ll change the turf to grass for just him,” he said.

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