It was the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The final match pitted Argentina against defending champions, France. A crowd of nearly 89,000 filled the stands of Lusail Stadium in Qatar, joined by 1.5 billion viewers watching from home to witness the clash of soccer titans, “La Albiceleste” vs. “Les Bleus,” legendary Argentine soccer team captain and star player Lionel Messi vs. France’s Kylian Mbappé.
The air crackled with anticipation, as the two giants exchanged blows that sent shockwaves through the stadium. Finally, after two hours of action including an extra-time frenzy, Argentina claimed victory in a 4-2 shoot out. Messi rejoiced over his first, long-awaited, World Cup win.
A few months later, Messi’s regular season team contract with Paris Saint-Germain was scheduled to expire. In the process of finding a new team, Messi was courted by multiple offers. Rumors germinated of a Saudi Arabian mega-deal that would set him up for life. No one, it was believed, would be able to match the windfall. And yet, somehow, Messi chose a different path.
His choice to join the relatively poorer Inter Miami CF team instead of the overly funded Saudi league carries lessons far beyond the soccer pitch. It points to a fundamental shift in how business competitions are won. Miss this lesson, and you risk being lost.
Two contrasting offers
According to NBC Sports, a contract with Saudi Arabia would have paid the 35-year-old soccer star $1.6 billion over three years. That’s monumental, considering the average salary of a European player is between $200,000 to $2 million per year. With terms like that, choosing the Saudis would seem obvious. How would any other team compete?
But the financial power of Saudi Arabia’s deal proved insufficient against a creative opportunity Inter Miami—a franchise co-owned by David Beckham—assembled. The team concocted an unorthodox offer representative of the emerging basis of business competition. Understand this emerging paradigm and you have a good chance of recruiting the best and winning future glory. Miss it and risk obsolescence.
The king vs. the coalition
There are two predominant views of power: the king or the coalition. In the king’s paradigm, one hopefully benevolent authority rules from the center. He or she decides where resources should be allocated and all those under them are employees.
But the counter-paradigm of a coalition holding the power is emerging. It is winning. And Messi’s move to my new hometown of Miami is evidence of this shift.
Knowing it could not match Saudi Arabia’s offer, Inter Miami chose two still unorthodox approaches that we believe will soon be the norm.
First, it decided not to compete alone, but instead to mobilize an ecosystem. It activated a set of partnerships between itself, Apple, Adidas, and Fanatics. Messi would receive a share of revenue from the Major League Soccer (MLS) season pass on Apple TV as well as compensation for Apple TV creating a TV series about Argentina’s World Cup win. In addition, Messi is reported to be receiving a share of profit of all of Adidas’ sales of US MLS gear, plus a percentage of Inter Miami’s shirt sales from Fanatics. He’ll eventually also receive an ownership stake in the club, similar to an MLS deal inked with Beckham in 2007.
Second, the deal treats him as more than a traditional player working for an organization. He participates in the upside of Inter Miami’s success rather than waiting for a paycheck. Think of this like a company treating its people as intrapreneurs rather than employees. Our study of companies that treat employees as intrapreneurs (true participants in the evolution and growth of the company) are nearly 3X more likely to be better at recruiting and retaining talent and outperforming their competition financially.
Perhaps Inter Miami could have found backers to match the Saudi offer. But instead, they built a coalition with Apple, Adidas, and Fanatics to develop a creative ecosystem strategy that beat out Saudi Arabia and aims to build a future with the Argentine star.
The power of ecosystems
In business competition, traditionally bigger meant better. Companies built up economies of scale and those that could make the most for the cheapest dominated their industries. In Messi’s case, Saudi Arabia’s proposal is old school—the highest salary should theoretically attract the top player. But research shows people care more about things like purpose and freedom after their financial needs have been satisfied (as Messi’s surely have been).
Ecosystems change the landscape. Instead of building up economies of scale, companies expand their capabilities and their responsiveness through partnerships. The combination of Inter Miami, Apple, Adidas, and Fanatics promised Messi more than just a salary—it also offered an exciting chance to monetize his fame through a clothing deal, a television contract, and ownership of a soccer club.
We can’t say for sure whether it was Inter Miami’s offer or location that convinced Messi, but Outthinker and Business Ecosystem Alliance research shows that more companies are leaning on business ecosystems to enhance and increase the value they would be able to generate individually.
Designing your ecosystem strategy
Messi’s first game with Inter Miami is scheduled for July 21. While you’re waiting for kickoff, reflect on how a business ecosystem strategy might help you increase value to your end users. A strong network of interconnected and collaborative partners can provide significant benefits to your organization and customers. Consider the following:
1. Think about all the value your people and partners bring rather than be limited by a job description.
The Saudis thought of Messi’s job as playing great soccer. The Inter Miami coalition recognized (financially through the agreement) that he brings much more value than soccer abilities, like filling seats, selling clothes, and driving views of media content.
2. Ask “Who else benefits if we win?”
This can reveal common partners that are outside of your industry. For example, Apple might not immediately jump to mind when we think of sports contracts, but their MLS season pass overlaps with Inter Miami’s interests.
3. Consider shared value.
In the old model, the “king” determines how much value you extract (by how much you get paid in salary). In the new “coalition” model, all partners share in the ecosystem’s success.
Expanding outside of your organization into partnerships can unlock new potential sources of value. Recognizing the advantages of business ecosystems allows you to leverage collective resources and capabilities that enable your organization to outthink the competition and thrive.