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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The stratospheric rise of Lionel Messi’s pink jersey


Within days of Lionel Messi’s announcement that he would join Inter Miami, stores and suppliers had asked Adidas for nearly half a million jerseys.

By Kevin Draper and Rory Smith


All of a sudden, after a single summer, the pink jersey is everywhere. It has become almost impossible to acquire, yet there it is, paradoxically, on the backs of thousands of fans thronging American stadiums, hanging from market stalls in Bangkok and Buenos Aires, Argentina, a vivid flash on almost every field where children gather to play soccer in England.


That the jersey has become, apparently overnight, the hottest piece of sports merchandise on the planet is a simple, capitalist equation: the result of an irresistible combination of one of the most recognizable and beloved athletes of his generation; a distinctive, exotic color; and the ruthless efficiency of textile factories in Southeast Asia.


Somehow, though, few people saw it coming. Tor Southard was better placed than most, but even he was caught unaware. As Adidas’ senior director for soccer in North America, he had been receiving emails from colleagues for nearly a year asking if the company’s biggest star, Lionel Messi, would be joining Inter Miami, also a client of Adidas.


As far as he knew, it was just a rumor. Like the rest of the planet, Southard learned it was true only on June 7, the day Messi announced his intentions in a rare interview with two Spanish news outlets.


For many, the immediate question was the soccer one. Six months after winning the World Cup with Argentina, why was Messi, the finest player of his generation and arguably the best of all time, leaving the elite clubs and competitions of Europe to join a team that ranked among the worst in the comparative backwater of America’s top league, Major League Soccer?


For Southard, and for Adidas, there was a rather more pressing matter. Within a couple of days of Messi’s announcement, the company had received almost 500,000 requests from stores and suppliers for jerseys in Miami’s soft, electric pink. It is a specific fabric and a specific shade: Pantone 1895C. “It’s not like it was white, and we had inventory we could repurpose,” Southard said.


Even if they could not foresee quite what a phenomenon the jersey would become, and quite how many people would clamor to get their hands on one, Southard and his colleagues had some sense of what was about to happen.


Adidas was going to need more of that fabric. A lot more.


‘No. 1 priority’


On the day Messi announced he would sign for Inter Miami, Adidas had a stock of Inter Miami jerseys in stores and storage facilities around the United States. It did not last. The shirts sold out so quickly that Southard said it seemed the inventory simply “evaporated.”


Getting the fabric to make more — and fast — was just the first step. Although Adidas would not start selling official Messi jerseys until his contract was formally signed on July 15, it placed orders for vast rolls of the pink fabric needed to make them within 24 hours of his interview on Spanish television in the first week of June.


The risk, of course, was that the deal could still collapse. “It’s a trade-off you make for speed,” Southard said.


In ordinary circumstances, retailers order jerseys as many as nine months in advance. Major sportswear brands, like Adidas and Nike, generally prefer to produce large batches of team gear, rather than manufacturing to meet demand, as fast fashion chains tend to do.


Given the number of what the industry terms “chase buys” — a sudden influx of orders in unanticipated volumes — for Messi’s Inter Miami jersey, Adidas knew its usual playbook would not work.


It had learned that from experience. In 2021, when Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United, one of the handful of retailers Adidas works with, Fanatics, asked for 1 million more jerseys. A year later, after Messi helped Argentina win the World Cup, Adidas had to produce and ship an extra 400,000 Argentine national team shirts in the span of three months.


Getting pink jerseys bearing Messi’s name and No. 10 into the market, Southard said, immediately became Adidas’ “No. 1 priority, globally.”


To streamline the process, the company sourced the pink, recycled polyester fabric for the jerseys as close as possible to the factories in Southeast Asia that would make them. Orders for other details like logos and crests were expedited at other facilities, sometimes leapfrogging the production of apparel for other Adidas teams. To cut down on shipping times, the first batches of the Messi jerseys were sent out in small shipments, almost as soon as they came off the production line.


The frantic production effort worked. Initially, Adidas had told its retailers to begin selling jerseys with a promise of delivery by Oct. 15. But the first editions arrived in the United States by July 18. They were sent straight to Miami, where demand was highest.


They sold out almost instantly.


‘Everyone has a hookup’


On a street corner in Miami’s wealthy Brickell neighborhood one evening last month, two young men had set up a pop-up Messi store, their racks groaning with Inter Miami jerseys in pink and an alternate version — black with pink trim — that the team wears on the road. This was the work of the imaginatively titled Messi Miami Shop.


The name sounds official. The online store looks it, too. It sells two versions of the Messi jersey, as most sportswear manufacturers now do: a “player version” made with high-quality material and an athletic cut, and a “replica” designed for fans whose bodies might not have the precise dimensions of an elite athlete.


The Messi Miami Shop is not, though, affiliated in any way with Messi, Inter Miami or Adidas. (It is, though, a shop.) Its jerseys had come, instead, from a contact in Thailand, purchased for $10 apiece. “This is Miami,” one of the sellers said. “Everyone has a hookup.” And a markup: The stall was selling the jerseys at $25 for a children’s edition and as much as $65 for an “authentic” inauthentic adult version of the team’s black jersey.


The sellers, who declined to give their names for reasons that should be obvious, had sold around 30 in a couple of hours, they said. But they are not the only ones hustling.


A few nights earlier, outside Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida, a different group of hawkers were doing their own brisk business in Messi jerseys. Messi was not playing that night — he missed several weeks of the season because of an injury — but Inter Miami was in town, and plenty of fans were prepared to pay $40 for a pink jersey bearing his name, even if it had shoddy stitching and was plucked from a backpack.


Despite all of Adidas’ attempts to get its official Messi jerseys into stores as quickly as possible, the clamor for them — any version of them — has proved so great that counterfeits have flooded the global market to meet the shortfall.


Although the company says it has now largely caught up with the backlog of orders, it has found that it is still selling jerseys far faster than it can produce them, and not just in the United States.


In Buenos Aires, where Messi’s status as a national treasure was sealed by victory in the World Cup, there are pink jerseys for sale in store after store and kiosk after kiosk along Calle Florida, one of the Argentine capital’s teeming shopping streets, and in the stalls of the bustling San Telmo Market. At some vendors, the fakes go for about $50.


In Europe, where tribal affiliations to local clubs run deep, Miami jerseys are suddenly commonplace. At a training session for elementary school children last month in Manchester, England, the usual concentration of Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool gear was flecked with a half dozen pink Inter Miami jerseys, each bearing Messi’s name.


It is difficult to overstate the scale of demand. Official sales have surpassed every benchmark Adidas could have imagined, Southard said: more than the frenzy that accompanied David Beckham’s move to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007; beyond the rush prompted by Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United in 2021; beyond the clamor for Messi’s Argentina shirt in the aftermath of Qatar 2022.


Inter Miami is now the bestselling Adidas soccer jersey in North America, ahead of all five of the storied European clubs that the brand traditionally regards as the crown jewels of its portfolio: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Arsenal.


Since July, Fanatics, which dominates sports apparel in the United States, has sold more Messi jerseys than for any other soccer player, and any athlete at all except Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. No player, in any sport, has ever sold more jerseys on the site in the first 24 hours after switching teams than Messi did in July.


His cinematic arrival in MLS — with a late game-winning goal in his debut on July 22 — came too late to salvage Inter Miami’s season. The club will miss the playoffs, which start today. Messi will not play in pink again until next year.


But that has done little to quell his impact. Inter Miami’s games drew record crowds from the moment he arrived. The team’s ticket prices for next season have soared. Adidas is confident that it has enough of the next edition of Messi’s jersey — due out in February — in production to meet demand.


For many fans and retailers, it cannot come a moment too soon. The jersey has become so coveted, so scarce, that even Beckham himself — one of the most famous soccer players of his generation, a worldwide celebrity and, as part-owner of Inter Miami, Messi’s boss — has found it hard to get hold of one.


More than once, he has wanted to send a pink Messi jersey to a friend or an associate as a gift, only to be told that he will have to wait, just like everyone else.


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