FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The seats at DRV PNK Stadium filled up quickly with fans eager to get a glimpse at Inter Miami’s new superstar.
Lionel Messi — arguably the greatest soccer player ever — stood on a runway in the middle of the field looking out at his new home.
“Thank you Miami,” Messi said to the crowd. “I’m happy to be here with you all.”
The next chapter of the 36-year-old’s storied career will begin here. Not at Camp Nou in Barcelona or Parc des Princes in Paris. At Inter Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium — a cozy venue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decorated with the team's pink and black colors.
Messi will make his Inter Miami debut Friday against Cruz Azul in the League's Cup. Coach Tata Martino said Thursday he hasn't decided if Messi and fellow Inter Miami newcomer Sergio Busquets will start, or how long they will play.
When the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner announced in June that he would join Inter Miami, the club — which is only in its fourth season — had to rush to add renovations to the stadium to accommodate the added attention.
Inter Miami for now plays home matches at the 18,000-seat stadium about 45 minutes north of the site in Miami where the team wants to build a permanent complex. DRV PNK Stadium was built on the previously named Lockhart Stadium, which was originally designed for high school sports. It sits across the street from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where Messi and his family arrived last week.
Silver bleachers were added last week to the northeast and southeast corners, increasing capacity by about 3,000 seats. That will still leave it well short of the nearly 100,000 seats at Camp Nou, where Messi rose to international stardom.
“You probably could never add enough seats to accommodate all of the interest that the team is experiencing,” said Stephanie Toothaker, outside counsel for Inter Miami. “I think we’ve done as much as we can in such a short period of time.”
Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham can relate to the adjustment of coming from overseas to play in MLS. Beckham in 2007 joined the LA Galaxy after spending the early years of his career playing at Old Trafford with Manchester United then at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium with Real Madrid.
The league was much different when Beckham made his transition.
“I think there was 15 teams in the league at that point," Beckham said. “Not many teams had soccer-specific stadiums. Now, there’s 30 teams in the league, and most of the teams have stadiums.”
Average MLS attendance this season is just under 23,000. Inter Miami is averaging 16,482. In June, Messi suited up for Argentina in an exhibition match against Australia in Beijing in front of more than 50,000 people.
In the weeks after Messi’s announcement, some speculated that the team could move its home matches to the 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, home of the NFL’s Dolphins and a venue for the 2026 World Cup. Such is the case for many MLS teams.
Atlanta United FC and Charlotte FC share their home venues with the NFL’s Panthers and Falcons. Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta holds around 70,000 for NFL games and 45,000 for soccer games. Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte has 74,000 seats. Charlotte FC’s first ever home game last year set an MLS attendance mark of 74,479, which could easily be the amount of people who show up to watch Messi play for his new MLS team.
Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas said Tuesday that the plan is to play the remaining regular-season home matches at DRV PNK Stadium, but there is a possibility of playing certain matches at Hard Rock Stadium.
“We have the U.S. Open Cup semifinal. I anticipate if we were successful at winning that game, I do anticipate that a U.S. Open Cup final will be at a large stadium," Mas said. “If we’re able to be a home team — Houston wins on the other side of the bracket — I would probably anticipate that game being at Hard Rock. We have a very good relationship with the people at Hard Rock. We could sell 70,000 seats here if we wanted to.”
A match between the Galaxy and the Los Angeles Football Club recently saw an MLS record crowd of 82,110 at the Rose Bowl.
“MLS was launched in big football stadiums," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We went through 20 years of building smaller soccer-specific stadiums. I still think that is our model ... But if a team wants to play a match in a large stadium and they think they can sell 80,000 seats, the league is going to say, ‘Just tell us where and we’ll show up with the Apple cameras.’”
It wouldn't be surprising for 70,000 people to show up to see Messi's first MLS game.
A group of fans arrived at DRV PNK Stadium Tuesday morning — some as early as 6:45 a.m. — to get a look at Messi, who took part in his first training session with Inter Miami. The practice started around 8:45 a.m. but was not open to fans. Members of the media were able to watch the first 15 minutes. The small crowd of fans waited in the heat and rain.
Around noon, they sprinted to the side of the stadium's parking lot where Messi's car was leaving Inter Miami's training complex. One more attempt at getting a peek at the star.
Some had never been to an MLS or Inter Miami game, but they'll be at DRV PNK Stadium, early, on Friday.
“I was over there and I started running,” said Diego Martinez, who traveled from New Jersey and waited for six hours Tuesday. He will attend his first Inter Miami game Friday. “It's going to be crazy.”
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister contributed.