NEW YORK — As lead managing owner of LAFC, Larry Berg has only seen his club compete in two Majore League Soccer seasons. But that’s offered enough sample size for the Black & Gold executive to make a bold claim about where the league is going.
The skinny? He believes MLS in the next 10 years will surpass Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League in the national sports pecking order. It'll also provide the US men's national team with a serious boost past Mexico, he argued.
"I think we definitely have the demographics in our favor in terms of youth and diversity," Berg said Wednesday at MLS Media Day. "I think we'll pass baseball and hockey to be the number three sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball. I think our crown jewel in the MLS are our academies.
"I think people don't appreciate how young we are in terms of the academy system, but it's such a large country that the that fact our academies are now organized in a way that harness that size and that talent. So, I think the academies will be pumping out this incredible talent, which will help both the league and the US men's national team such that the league will vault way past Liga MX and the US men's national team will vault past Mexico."
Nobody has a crystal ball, of course, but FC Dallas chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, a founding investor-operator in MLS when it launched in 1996, agreed about the league's momentum. He’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly – providing perspective on how significant the league’s 25th anniversary is.
“The growth in the last 10 or 15 years has really been amazing,” Hunt said. “When we launched the league in the mid 90s, there was a lot of excitement, but we almost didn't make it. In fact, I was speaking with [MLS president and deputy commissioner] Mark Abbott earlier and I asked him, ‘Do you remember whether we had a celebration at the end of the 10th season?’ He said, ‘No, it would have been a very small celebration had we had it.’ But look at where we are today with 26 teams on the way to 30: Incredible passion. Incredible passion. The league really is on the move.”
Thinking about that rapid growth — as well as the introduction of more soccer-specific stadiums — commissioner Don Garber observed how MLS is increasingly becoming a league of choice for players and coaches alike. Rather than speaking to the league’s comparative placement in the domestic professional sport ecosystem, he reflected on its global emergence.
“Our focus is how we are comparing to the other soccer leagues around the world,” Garber said. “We have grown in credibility and respect. We still have an enormous way to go before the typical MLS team on a day-to-day basis could beat Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Manchester United, but if you look at the totality of where we are in ownership groups, structure, our partnerships, our facilities, our development programs, our organization, our content and media and marketing, I think we are without a doubt viewed as one of the top soccer leagues in the world.”
As for another 25 years down the line, when a 50th season celebration could be in order? Inter Miami CF managing owner Jorge Mas said the world's top leagues are in their crosshairs.
“I think the MLS will be one of the top sports leagues in the United States,” Mas said. “I think it'll be on par or exceed the best leagues in the world, be it Premier League or Serie A or La Liga. I think the success of the MLS will be global, it won't only be in our country because soccer is a global sport. So I think of the MLS 25 years from now, we'll be Premier League-ish if we want to so call it that on the metrics that leagues are measured by.”
Executives at MLS Media Day agreed, too, that continued investment in academies and youth development will play a key role. But so will transfer spending, with the 2020 offseason producing record-setting fees, particularly from Liga MX. In other words, there’s incredible momentum heading into year No. 25, but other levels are on the horizon. Just ask Berg, who leveled with where MLS goes from here.
“I think we're already a league of choice to a certain extent, but whether we can be a top five league or top three league will really come down at the end of the day to money and our ability to compete for players,” Berg said. “I think the good news is players want to play here. We're the United States of America, people want to live here, it's an incredible lifestyle, the infrastructure is fantastic.
“We already have a terrific offering certainly for South American players et cetera, but we're not quite there yet with the European players. That will come down to money. If we can crack that in 10 years, we'll also be a top five league."