Not only does the 2023 Major League Soccer season kick off on Saturday, February 25, but the league’s new era also gets underway.
Highlighted by a new, 10-year global media rights deal with Apple which will guarantee the league at least $2.5 billion, an expanded and revamped MLS Cup Playoffs, the introduction of its 29th franchise, St. Louis City SC, and the inaugural Leagues Cup, a new inter-league competition against Liga MX, MLS is hotter than ever.
“Going into season 25 for me and the evolution of the league over all these years—really over a generation—has been awe inspiring,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told media at the league’s new MLS Season Pass studio space in New York City. “(Los Angeles Galaxy president) Chris Klein told me over 70,000 seats are sold for the opener in the Rose Bowl. (We’ll have) 70,000 fans in Atlanta and we’ll have 70,000 a week later in Charlotte. We’ll have packed stadiums.
“It’ll be a great launch for the next generation of Major League Soccer. I couldn’t be more excited about the year ahead.”
Garber isn’t the only one who is excited for what’s been built since MLS began play in 1996—two years after the 1994 FIFA World Cup was held on U.S. soil—and, more importantly, what’s to come.
MLS posted a record attendance of 10 million during the 2022 season, while the MLS Cup in November recorded the league’s best viewership since 1997 with 2.2 million viewers in the U.S. alone on Fox and Univision.
The league has tripled the number of its teams since 2004 and is expected to announce its 30th franchise by the end of the year. According to Garber, “San Diego and Las Vegas are the most likely opportunities for 30,” while he also mentioned Phoenix, Sacramento, Detroit and Tampa as other potential homes for MLS franchises should the league go beyond 30 clubs.
“I never thought we’d be at 28. I never thought we’d be at 29,” he says. “We’d say we’re going to stop at 30, but the other major leagues are larger than that. I don’t ever say ‘never’ in Major League Soccer. There are many other markets that are opportunities for us. … Soccer is exploding professionally everywhere, on the professional side and the men’s and women’s side, so we’ll see.”
David Tepper paid $325 million in 2019 for Charlotte FC, but with MLS team valuations climbing 85% to $579 million since that year, including LAFC valued at $1 billion per Forbes estimates, expansion fees are expected to be $500 million.
“Every time we bring in a new expansion team, the owner says, ‘Why am I paying so much for an MLS team?’ then the next day their team is valued for dramatically more than they paid,” Garber says. “That speaks to (the fact that) we’re probably not selling our teams for enough when we go through an expansion process. … The next round will be commensurate with what team values are today.”
League sponsors are equally as bullish about the growth of the league, and soccer in general throughout the United States, where more than 800,000 players at the high school level played the sport during the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Federation of High School Associations.
Also buoyed by the 2026 FIFA World Cup coming to the continent, MLS extended its deals with Audi, a league partner since 2015, for three years, as well as with Adidas, a league-founding partner, through 2030 for a reported $830 million.
MLS announced a new, multi-year partnership with RBC Wealth Management on February 21, while IHG Hotels & Resorts joined as a multi-year sponsor in June.
“It’s not very often that it comes along where you can have a situation and a product that the runway is bigger than the huge lift that’s happened in the last 28 years for us,” says Rupert Campbell, president of Adidas North America. “We see—and I’m very, very excited by—all the work we can do together. I think the future is very bright in this space.”
AT&T, a league sponsor since 2009, renewed its deal in 2017 to become presenting sponsor for MLS Decision Day as well as the MLS All-Star Game. Could an extension be imminent?
Mark Wright, AT&T vice-president of media services and sponsorships, says to “stay tuned.”
“The expansion of the league has been helping all the sponsors,” Wright says. “We’re in more cities, there’s more excitement and they’re building new soccer-specific stadiums, and that helps everybody. Moreover, they’re selling the tickets to fill those buildings.
“As an investor in the league, as a marketeer in the league, we’re really excited for that kind of growth.”
A rising tide lifts all boats and it looks like more and more are getting onboard with soccer in the United States.
“I think the opportunity is endless for where pro soccer can go in this country,” Garber says.