As a kid growing up in Mexico, while most of my friends supported giant clubs like Club América and Cruz Azul, I made the ill-fated decision to root for the scrappier underdogs of Atlético Español – who proved so scrappy they went bust and extinct even before I could reach adulthood. Atlético’s place in the league was then occupied by Necaxa, an older club that had been absent from the first division for many years, but I soon moved on, to the United States, where no one cared about the world’s game.
Fast forward several decades and you can imagine my surprise earlier this month at seeing a headline that an idiosyncratic group of foreign investors – including Eva Longoria, Kate Upton and her husband Justin Verlander, the great ex-Arsenal star and 2014 World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, and the owners of DC United in the MLS – had acquired a stake in Necaxa. I mean, I am writing a book on the globalization of sport, and teach a university course on the subject, but this still took me by surprise, and hit close to home.
There have been no shortage of indications that the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the globalization of sport, with US investors rushing in to acquire soccer teams across Europe and developing cross-border, and in some cases cross-sport, multinationals. And so in class we have discussed the significance of breaking news like the San Francisco 49ers investing in Leeds United of the English Premier League, Lebron James partnering with the Fenway Sports Group to expand the Boston Red Sox-Liverpool empire, and – this just in! – the news over the weekend that US-owned English teams are calling for a radical restructuring of European soccer, with the foundation of a new breakaway continental Super League.
One of the drivers of sport’s evolving commercialization and globalization is its growing importance to media. Indeed, in a world of infinite, on-demand entertainment, sport is fast becoming the last form of indispensable mass, live media. The Super Bowl or the European Champions League Final will still bring together millions of viewers simultaneously, and the way sports media rights work (unlike, say, news), those viewers can only come together in one place. Hence at a time when streaming services and other outlets are proliferating to serve every conceivable niche audience, sport is more valuable than ever.
Here in the United States, the streaming wars are proving a bonanza for soccer fans, as these content providers desperately try to differentiate themselves by adding exclusive sport offerings to their familiar mixes of sitcoms, drama serials, and movies. Peacock has reported that the English Premier League is the largest driver of new subscribers, and the new Paramount+ has gone soccer mad, snatching up the rights to the NWSL, CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, the UEFA Champions and Europa League competitions, and the Argentine, Brazilian, and Italian leagues. I felt like I had been dropped behind a Sports Iron Curtain, separated from the rest of the world, when I first came to the US as a teenager, but nowadays this country is soccer-watching nirvana.
Liga MX remains by far the most watched of all soccer leagues in the United States, so it is no surprise that its clubs are now starting to catch the eye of US investors. The league lacks the financial transparency and governance standards to attract the waves of overwhelming outside investment pouring into some European leagues, but it may only be a matter of time.
Soccer fandom has become so globalized in the United States and elsewhere that in my Sport and Globalization class, only 10% of those students who said they watch soccer regularly cited our own Major League Soccer as the league they follow most closely. MLS has done an admirable job of growing steadily since its birth after the 1994 US World Cup, but it runs the risk of being a cannibalized victim to soccer’s popularity in a globalized world. Yes, soccer is more popular than ever in the US, but far more people are tuning in to watch English matches on NBC/Peacock and Liga MX matches on TUDN and Fox Sports than MLS offerings.
So Mexico increasingly looks crucial to the future of soccer in the United States, much like it is to the future growth of our incumbent US sports. The National Football League recently revamped its schedules for future seasons to allow for more regular-season games to be played abroad, including in Mexico City, and teams in the NBA, MLB, and NFL are advocating for more freedom to do their own marketing to foreign fans, which is often controlled and limited by leagues. One of the fun exercises in our class has been to have students think of how the Arizona Cardinals or Phoenix Suns could work to become the favorite team in the state of Guanajuato, or the country of Argentina for that matter, if all such restrictions to out-of-market outreach were lifted.
For soccer, the 2026 North America’s shared World Cup, played across the USMCA region, provides an intriguing backdrop for further integration of the US and Mexican markets. The logistics of collapsing two separate domestic leagues into one transnational league (the MLS already includes some Canadian teams) are as daunting as the upside is tantalizing. The concept is appealing to the sport’s global overseers: Last month, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said a merger between Mexico’s Liga MX and Major League Soccer would be seen positively by FIFA and could produce “the best league in the world.”
Time will tell if the foreign investment in Necaxa is a precursor of things to come, or a one-off transaction. I just wish we could travel back in time and have this cash arrive some 40 years earlier, to rescue my beloved Atlético Español.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz