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Is The Messi Fairytale in Miami A Lesson For Hiring Star Talent

In adding to Inter Miami’s nine-game unbeaten streak that includes a first major trophy, Lionel Messi’s arrival has sold out stadiums and merchandise, and seen the club’s Instagram account grow from 1M to 15M followers. Credit: Brazil Photo Press/Alamy Live News
  • Lionel Messi is for many the biggest star in football, but his fairytale start in the MLS with Inter Miami has exceeded expectations
  • Much like major sports teams, hedge funds are prepared to pay big money to attract top talent
  • Research from the University of Maryland explores the best circumstances in which to introduce star talent

The magic of Lionel Messi has helped Inter Miami to a first major trophy with victory in the Leagues Cup. The club were rock bottom of Major League Soccer when Messi joined them a month ago, but with Spanish pair Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, Messi has transformed the fortunes of the team, leading them on an nine-game unbeaten run that includes a second showpiece with a place in the US Open Cup final and their first MLS victory after 11 games without a win. 

“It is like a movie,” says David Beckham, co-owner of the MLS franchise.  “You watch these players play, and it’s emotional watching them because everything about their play is beautiful.” 

Beckham has always promised Miami ‘a star’, and in Lionel Messi there are none bigger. But even the former Manchester United and England player could not have imagined the immediate impact Messi has had on the fortunes of his new club.  

Beyond silverware, Miami’s stadium is sold out with ticket prices soaring, merchandise sales have also shot up dramatically, and the club’s Instagram account has grown from 1 million to 15 million followers.

Hiring for success 

As the Premier League summer transfer window comes to an end, clubs have spent a record £1.95bn to boost their squads in the hope of winning the title and qualifying for a place in the Champions League, or simply surviving in the lucrative elite division for another year.  

Meanwhile, top Saudi football clubs have splashed out over £500 million so far in 2023, on par with Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1, and ahead of Spain’s La Liga. Signings include Brazilian icon Neymar Junior who left Paris Saint-Germain to join Al Hilal for a reported transfer fee of around £80 million, following last year’s signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr in a £60 million-per-year deal, with the potential to reach £150 million through commercial agreements with the club. 

Football managers the world probably wish they could introduce similar star players to their team and give them the competitive edge they need to compete at the highest levels of the sport. 

And it is not just professional sports teams that are prepared to offer massive financial rewards to secure top talent. Hedge funds face a similar bidding war to attract the best, with Bloomberg reporting that last year a senior portfolio manager was lured by a major New York fund with more than $120 million in guaranteed payouts. Contracts worth $10 million to $15 million are increasingly common for traders, according to a headhunter. 

But is the fairytale start for Lionel Messi at Inter Miami an exception, rather than the rule? Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology explores the best circumstances in which to introduce such talent.

Professor Gilad Chen of the University of Maryland’s Smith School fo Business and fellow researchers – Marvin Schuth and Nicholas Folger of Technical University of Munich, Prisca Brosi of Kühne Logistics University and Robert E. Ployhart of the University of South Carolina – asked whether it pays to hire more expensive talent?

“Of course we were expecting that more talented newcomers would perform better,” Chen said. “But the more interesting aspect is under what conditions new talent performed better as newcomers.”

The researchers gathered data from the introduction of thousands of new players in football leagues across Europe and found that very talented players who joined teams halfway through the season had the biggest impact when their new team was struggling when they were signed. The biggest impact of all, however, was when they joined more successful teams before the season started so they could gel with their new teammates.

Corporate crossover

The researchers believe that their findings have parallels with the corporate world, where companies often pay a premium to hire the highest-profile talent. This is especially so as it wasn’t simply a case of throwing money at the best talent, they had to be given the right environment too.

“When you pay a premium for high talent, there’s an expectation that the extra money pays off right off the bat,” the researchers explain. “But that’s not always the case.”

For instance, adding one new star seemed to be more effective than adding a number of them when they joined midseason, but this wasn’t the case if a number of stars joined during pre-season. Similarly, lower-performing teams seemed to see a bigger boost from the introduction of a new star than a higher-performing team.

“It’s almost like you’re bringing a saver in,” the researchers explain. “Regardless of when they joined, the effect of newcomer human capital was more positive when they joined a lower-performing team because the team really needed them.”

Investing wisely

They believe that in both business and sport, there are clear incentives for improving one’s teams, but that it’s important that you invest wisely in new talent.

“You don’t want to overpay for talent, but in contexts where the market value of a newcomer is linked to a higher level of human capital, it’s a good investment,” they explain. “And that investment is especially beneficial to lower-performing teams.”

If you’re looking to improve your team, it may be tempting to invest in a single superstar, but that might not always be the best route to take.

“There’s a lot we can learn from professional sports teams about business,” the authors conclude. “A team is a large business in itself, and it’s also an organization. There are implications for organizational-level performance with these factors of adding newcomers. These are people at the top of their game.”

About the Author – Adi Gaskell writes about technology, innovation and collaboration for some of the biggest sites in the field, including Forbes, the HuffPost and the BBC. His blog, The Horizons Tracker brings together the latest news, research and trends that are affecting the workplace today.

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