Soccer in the United States is experiencing a major boom in popularity and appeal, which has only been accelerated by the arrival of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.
The fanfare around the World Cup winner reflects how the sport has finally broken through in the market and attracted significant interest.
With the next men’s FIFA World Cup taking place across North America in 2026, the trajectory will only continue to scale upwards.
Ahead of soccer’s global showpiece coming to town, there is a battle between the major leagues in Europe for eyeballs, new fans, and commercial value as the biggest sport in the world now has a growing audience in the biggest market.
Despite being a global phenomenon, soccer has been a slow burner in the US due to the popularity of national leagues such as American football’s NFL, basketball’s NBA, and baseball’s MLB.
American investors, however, have long been aware of the financial behemoth that European soccer is.
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Some of Europe’s biggest clubs are now in the hands of US owners such as England’s Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United, and Italian giants AC Milan.
Half of the teams in the English Premier League, widely regarded as the best league in the world, are in the hands of US investors or owners.
What has driven the appeal in a territory that was previously difficult to crack?
“There is no market like the US,” explains Fabio Sa, head of global football strategy at digital media specialists Minute Media. “The main difference is this perfect storm and alignment.”
“The biggest driver of the change was that American venture capitalists and owners understood that for them to grow, they needed to leave America. For American money to grow, it cannot be contained within the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. They know that money in sports, when well applied and well managed, brings more money.
“The Glazers invested in Manchester United 15 years ago for $500 million. How much is the club worth now? Up to $8 billion. We're seeing many global powerhouses becoming American global powerhouses in Europe.”
He continues: “Where are these owners going to reap the benefits of their investments? Primarily back home because they know that there is a domestic market that they have already seen consuming the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, why not global football? They know that there's a market craving for this.
“The main difference is now they have more control over it. 20 years ago, global football did not belong to them. More ownership means more professionalism and attention to the mouth-watering market that the US is.”
The biggest leagues and clubs across Europe are attentive to this and many recently embarked on strategic pre-season tours in the US.
Around 30 games were played in the country over 30 days, with an average attendance of over 50,000 per match.
The likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Borussia Dortmund all played matches in the States. As well as stepping up preparations for their respective domestic seasons, it was a trip focused on building commercial ties and fan engagement.
The Premier League also staged a pre-season tournament in the US for the first time featuring six of its clubs.
To support their growth in the country, many leagues and clubs are looking for support on the ground to connect with a wider audience.
With its established presence in the market and significant reach, Minute Media is uniquely positioned to provide this.
“We're fully vested into growing the sport here in the US. We’re a global powerhouse and have been doing this for a long time,” Sa says.
“We have the blueprint of what works and what doesn't work and have put it [soccer] front and center. If you don't take care of soccer when the NFL or NBA seasons come, it swallows everything else. We don't want to let that happen. We're going to be soccer-focused 24 hours a day.
“What we can bring to the table, to leagues, clubs, and commercial partners, is that this is a priority for us. We have a massive scale here. We have been doing this for over a decade and believe in the growth of the game here in the States.”
Minute Media, which operates three digital sports content platforms – The Players’ Tribune, 90min, and FanSided – has a reach of 60 million daily users, 20 million of which are soccer fans. It also amasses 2 billion video views per month.
Germany’s Bundesliga recently enlisted Minute Media’s services, bringing the company on board as its official content partner to boost its presence in North America.
The deal started with Dortmund’s US tour across San Diego, Las Vegas, and Chicago where the company provided behind-the-scenes content on its 90min global soccer network, as well as in-depth features with selected athletes from the Bundesliga on its athlete-first platform, The Players’ Tribune.
Throughout the 2023-24 season, Minute Media’s sports platforms will gain access to a wide range of content from the Bundesliga and second-tier Bundesliga 2, including the latest highlights, interviews, and archive footage.
On how the partnership came about, Sa explains: “We were having conversations for a while. The Bundesliga is so vested in the growth of the game as much as we are, so it was an easy match because neither of us was selling anything to the other. They were not pushing their content on us and we were not pushing our numbers on them.
“They have high-quality content, it’s one of the top leagues in the world. It’s the league that has the most North American players, so it's interesting for the North American fan. They have their selling points, and we have ours.
“What really clicked is that we're not here for the short term, we're here to build this together. There's a common interest in finding the best way to do it throughout the partnership. Of course, the partnership has the baseline, where they’ll share high-quality content with us, highlights, access to legends, players, backstage content, and traveling to Germany to cover matches.
“What we bring to the table is deepening and widening what we already did. We already covered the Bundesliga. We’ll be doing more and doing it better. We’ll also be putting them front and center, offering them the possibility of doing exclusive high-quality custom content with us and obviously, using their content and maximizing it as much as we can.”
The Bundesliga partnership is an example of how major leagues are tapping into other territories for a cross-pollination of country-to-country fanbase growth.
As well as the pre-season tours in the US by European teams, the likes of the NFL, NBA, and MLB have tapped into this with regular season matches in Europe.
In addition to the 2026 World Cup, the US will host next year’s Copa America, the Club World Cup in 2025, a potential Women's World Cup in 2027, and the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, making it a sporting hotbed over the next five years.
Minute Media wants to be the go-to platform to help leagues make a mark in the US market.
“What the Bundesliga is doing as much as any other top-tier league is it’s setting up offices here, looking for regional sponsors, maximizing and capitalizing the fact that it has homegrown American players,” Sa outlines.
“They know that they have great content but they're fighting not only with the other leagues, but also with other American sports that are consumed here.
“It's a 24/7 fight for attention and they have great content so partnering with a publisher like us, who is able to distribute this content on scale and with a lot of quality, is important for them and also for any other league that wants to expand here in the States because we're not exclusive of the Bundesliga and they know this.
“We want to be the number one soccer destination here in the States and in order for us to be that we have to be a go-to solution for leagues and clubs who want to expand here.”
The US is very much seeing the benefits of focused development of soccer ahead of the World Cup.
The rise in popularity of Major League Soccer (MLS), the continuing success of the women’s NWSL, and the opportunity to host soccer’s showpiece event means the sport has significant momentum in the US.
The investment of American owners and organizations into European soccer and the creation of multi-club entities means that the US now has the knowledge and infrastructure to adequately capitalize on the World Cup and continue the domestic growth of its leagues.
The opportunities for commercialization for soccer in the territory have never been greater and the heavyweights in Europe have taken notice.
“Top-tier leagues are understanding that football here in the States is definitely not a domestic product anymore,” Sa says. “There is only so much you can grow domestically.”
“When you look at the Premier League, for example, how much of its revenue comes from the UK and how much of it comes from outside?
“Manchester United probably have the biggest fan base in the world and it's not because of the UK, it's because of China and the eastern portion of their fans and this is something that they have been building since the 1990s and 2000s.
“It has been happening for decades already, there's nobody reinventing the wheel. The biggest difference is that there is a perfect storm now and it's not only about Messi. There will be mega events here in the States until at least 2028.”
The widespread buzz created by Messi’s arrival at Inter Miami shows the thirst for soccer in the US and how that can be translated into commercial success.
Jorge Mas, the MLS club’s managing owner, recently revealed its revenues are now expected to double over the next year and its value could reach $1.5 billion by 2024.
To put this into context, Inter Miami’s revenue stood at $56 million in 2022, while the franchise was valued at $600 million, according to Forbes.
Messi's debut delivered the highest domestic single network viewing figure for an MLS side since 2004. The team’s win over Cruz Azul, en route to winning the Leagues Cup, secured an average audience of 1.75 million on Spanish-language network Univision.
Meanwhile, ticket prices on the secondary market for Messi's opening matches soared by more than 1,000% and his jerseys sold out across multiple outlets.
Subscribers for Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass jumped from roughly 700,000 in early June, to nearly 1 million by the time the 36-year-old made his debut.
Sa adds: “A combination of factors has finally aligned. Just look at the numbers of how soccer fandom is growing here in the States and how the business of soccer is growing here.
“The valuation of Inter Miami has grown because of the arrival of Messi. What there is in the States today wasn't here 20 years ago and it is a market ready for the consumption of this game.”
Minute Media has been a content partner of MLS for the past three years and has played a role in growing soccer in the US, working with the league and its sponsors.
As interest in global soccer continues to rise, leagues are looking to content platforms like this to continue the momentum throughout the year.
The company has ambitions to become the number one digital destination for soccer fans in the US and has a strategic four-pronged strategy to contribute to the growth of the game over the next 12 to 18 months.
Sa concludes: “Number one, it’s about MLS and Leagues Cup because it's part of the MLS ecosystem. It's not only about surfing the Messi wave but how together with the league we make the domestic game bigger.
“The second pillar is to ensure the Copa America next year doesn’t just last for 30 days but is a kick-off to the World Cup in 2026.
“Number three is the women's game. We have been covering the women's game since our inception. Finally, the domestic fan of the international game. That's where the Bundesliga fits.
“How can we bring to the domestic fan of global football the best quality content that we can? We're open to becoming partners with other leagues too.”