Adidas’s Plan to Combat Bootleg Messi Merchandise May Have Backfired

Inside the thinking behind a controversial T-shirt sale

Lionel Messi of Inter Miami at Red Bull Arena
When Lionel Messi of Inter Miami played at Red Bull Arena, some fans noticed interesting merch in the club store.
Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Angels play on the road in, say, Houston, you wouldn’t expect to see the Astros selling Shohei Ohtani T-shirts. The same principle is true for most sports: go looking for a Patrick Mahomes jersey in the Seattle Seahawks’ team store and you’ll be out of luck. But what’s true for most sports doesn’t always apply to all sports.

When Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF came to play the New York Red Bulls last month at Red Bull Arena, some fans were surprised to see that the arena’s club store featured two Messi-themed shirts on display alongside the merchandise you’d expect from the home team. The story behind how they came to be there — and what it means for both Major League Soccer and Adidas — illustrates some of the challenges facing teams, players and apparel companies in 2023.

Writer Michael Battista, who was at the Red Bulls/Inter Miami game covering the match, posted a photo of the shirts on X (formerly Twitter), which quickly sparked debate — especially in light of comments made to the press earlier that week by Red Bulls General Manager Marc de Grandpre, who said that Messi jerseys would not be sold at the match. True, a Messi shirt is not the same thing as a Messi jersey, but even at a time when a growing number of sports fans are following specific players rather than specific teams, it felt like a faux pas.

Now, Battista has learned more details about why the shirts were there at the Red Bulls game, and why they weren’t sold the next time Inter Miami played a road game, this time at LAFC. In an article for New York Sports Nation, Battista got to the bottom of the shirt issue, and in the process discovered an initiative to push back against bootleg merchandise that may have done more harm than good.

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You’ll note that the two Messi shirts on sale at the game in question are specifically Messi shirts, not Inter Miami shirts. That’s due to Messi’s individual contract with Adidas, a company which also has a relationship with MLS. Battista’s article cites an anonymous “source close to the situation” who told him that Adidas had seen a truly epic amount of bootleg Messi merchandise sold since the star announced his move to Inter Miami earlier this year.

For understandable reasons, the source said, Adidas wanted to crack down on this, and offered MLS clubs the option to sell Messi shirts directly in the hopes that Messi fans would opt for licensed merchandise as opposed to bootleg gear.

Given the response to the Messi shirts at Red Bull Arena, however, it’s unclear if they’ll put in a return appearance at other Inter Miami road games. Battista’s source suggested that the backlash to selling gear from an opposing team could lead to other clubs forgoing the option — or, at Battista phrased it, “the Red Bulls were the guinea pig in this experiment.”

It’s not surprising that Adidas — who stands to benefit dramatically from Messi’s MLS move — would want to cut into bootleg Messi merch sales. It’s also not surprising that the Red Bulls (who are, full disclosure, my MLS team of choice) — or any MLS team, given the likely effects of the pandemic on revenue in recent years — would be interested in an opportunity to sell shirts to people who showed up to see Messi play. But in the end, this looks more and more like a perfect storm of a number of theoretically pragmatic business decisions combining into something that benefits no one.

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