MLS owners predict league will surpass MLB, Premier League

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

By RONALD BLUM

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) Los Angeles FC lead owner Larry Berg predicts Major League Soccer will surpass Major League Baseball in popularity during the next 10 years and Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas maintains it will be of higher quality than the Premier League and La Liga by 2045.

The pair spoke at the league's kickoff event Wednesday, three days ahead of the start of its 25th season.

MLS anticipates the status of soccer in the U.S. will be boosted when the Americans co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada.

"We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity. So I think we'll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball," Berg said. "I think we will be the league of choice. I think we're already a league of choice to a certain extent, whether we can be a top-five league or a top-three league will really come down at the end of the day to money, our ability to compete for players."

MLS is expanding to 26 teams with the addition of David Beckham's Inter Miami and Nashville, and plans are in place to reach 30 franchises by 2022 - triple the league's low from 2002-04. The league has increasingly attracted better players from South America.

"I think the good news is players want to play here," Berg said. "We're the United States of America. People want to live here. It's an incredible lifestyle. The infrastructure is fantastic."

Mas co-owns the Miami team that launches this weekend, partnering with former England captain Beckham. He talked about what MLS will look like for its 50th year in 2045.

"I think the MLS will be one of the top sports leagues in the United States. I think it will be on par or exceed the best leagues in the world, the Premier League or Serie A or La Liga worldwide," Mas said. "I think that the MLS 25 years from now will be Premier League-ish if we want to so-call it that on the metrics that leagues are measured by."

Clark Hunt, CEO of MLS' Dallas team and the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, compared soccer's progress in the U.S. to that of the NFL, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

"The momentum that we have I think has a chance to take us to where the NFL is today," he said.

Beckham boosted the league when he played for the LA Galaxy from 2007-12, a deal that gave him the right to buy an expansion fee at a discount.

"Do I think in the next 10 years it will challenge the European leagues? It's what we all strive for. It's what we will strive to commit to," Beckham said. "This should never be a league where players from Europe come to retire. That's not where you want to be. It's not where we want to be as owners."

Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, join the league next year, followed by St. Louis and Sacramento, California. Charlotte, announced in December, agreed to pay a $325 million expansion fee.

Detroit, Las Vegas and Phoenix remain in contact with the league, which also is monitoring efforts in San Diego. More warm-weather cities would help the schedule early and late in the year.

"We have no plan in place to go past 30," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "It's conceivable that in time we might look at a larger league to be able to address some of those challenges."

Hunt recalled the league's low point.

"When we launched in the mid-'90s, there was a lot of excitement, but we almost didn't make it," he said.

Carolyn Kindle Betz, CEO of St. Louis, spoke about being a rare female controlling owner in soccer but also misspoke, referring to the "Major Soccer League" before correcting herself.

MLS also announced a new league anthem to be used for walkout music, composed by Academy Award and Grammy winner Hans Zimmer. There is also a new deal with Second Spectrum, which is installing optical tracking that will produce data that MLS Commissioner Don Garber said can be used for technical staffs, broadcasts and betting.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Updated February 26, 2020

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