Liga MX Draws First Major U.S. Investors to ‘NFL of Mexico’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Scott Soshnick and Eben Novy-Williams
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

For the past few years, American investors have poured money into soccer clubs in England, France and Italy, sensing untapped commercial opportunities. Now for the first time, they’re turning their attention to Mexico.

Real estate investor Al Tylis and Sam Porter, an executive at MLS club D.C. United, have an agreement in place to buy about half of Liga MX franchise Club Necaxa, according to people familiar with the matter. Their group includes Mexican-American actress Eva Longoria, German soccer star Mesut Ozil, model Kate Upton and her husband, MLB pitcher Justin Verlander.

The deal values the club, currently owned by the Tinajero family, in the low-nine figures, according to the people, who were granted anonymity because the Mexican soccer federation hasn’t yet approved the transaction. Both Porter and Tylis declined to comment, and a representative for the club didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry.

If approved, it would be the first significant U.S. investment into America’s most-watched soccer league. Led by clubs like Chivas and Club America, the 18-team Liga MX is extremely popular among the nearly 40 million Mexican-Americans living in the U.S., and structural changes are making the league more attractive to investors. Those include the temporary suspension of relegation to lower leagues, a higher commitment to financial transparency, increased cooperation with MLS, and optimism around the possibility of selling the league’s commercial rights as a group.

“Liga MX is the NFL of Mexico,” said Dan Cohen, senior vice president of global media rights consulting at Octagon. “Its fan base, viewership, sponsorship sales, merchandise are all unmatched in Mexico, but it’s also a juggernaut in the U.S.”

Mexico has a population of about 128 million, and there are 37 million people of Mexican descent in the U.S. That group has grown more than 76% in the past two decades, and is evident in the league’s U.S. television audience.

Liga MX games on Univision have drawn 845,000 viewers in the U.S. this year, an average that dwarfs those for English Premier League games on NBC in the same timeframe (475,000), and MLS English-language matches with Fox and ESPN in 2019 (355,000). It achieved that despite significant demographic disadvantages—the Spanish-language Univision serves about 26% fewer households than NBC.

The strong viewership numbers, however, mask an imbalance between the league’s top clubs and everyone else. Liga MX commercial rights are sold on a team-by-team basis, both domestically and internationally, unlike major U.S. sports, which all have league-wide sponsorship and TV deals.

That creates an added layer of complexity for small-city teams like Necaxa, said Walter Franco of Victus Advisors, a firm that works in both U.S. and Mexican soccer. While big corporations are increasingly turning to soccer to reach America’s growing Hispanic population, the decentralized nature means most smaller Mexican clubs do little commercial business in the U.S. outside of their TV deals.

“The challenge in the U.S., for teams that are not Chivas or Club America, is that you have to be able to target people from that team’s specific region, who are fans of that club, and it’s difficult to do,” Franco said. “Think about Los Angeles. What percentage of Mexican-Americans in L.A. are from Sonora? Or from Chihuahua? It’s hard to find that.”

That club-first business model, and the lack of guaranteed centralized revenue, has long deterred foreign investment in the league. Alejandro Irarragorri, owner of Liga MX clubs Santos Laguna and Atlas, said as much in an open letter last April. But there’s some evidence that the structure may change. The league recently hired IMG to help sell some league-wide sponsorships, with Mexican beer brand Tecate coming on board in January.

Navigating that ambiguity will be top of mind for the new Necaxa investors. Founded in 1923, the club is based in Aguascalientes, a provincial capital with a population of about 860,000 that’s about 300 miles northwest of Mexico City. It has three Liga MX titles, and was most recently promoted back to the top tier in 2016.

Tylis, a former CEO of NorthStar Asset Management, is an investor across a number of sports and entertainment properties, including soccer clubs D.C. United and Swansea City in the U.K. (which share an ownership group), and gaming entities G2 Esports and Epic Games. Porter is chief strategy officer for D.C. United and is on the Swansea City board.

They’ll become the latest U.S. investors to acquire soccer assets abroad. Other EPL investors include Stan Kroenke, John Henry, Shad Khan, the San Francisco 49ers and the Glazer Family. French club owners include RedBird Capital and former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.

In the early stages of the pandemic last year, Liga MX froze promotion and relegation for at least five years, meaning investors don’t run the risk of buying a top-flight team that is playing the following year in a lower division. That change came amid increased cooperation between MLS and Liga MX, as the two countries prepare to co-host (with Canada) the 2026 World Cup. The two leagues have also long discussed a possible merger, which received strong support from FIFA president Gianni Infantino last month.

Asked about that cooperation on Monday, MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters that the two leagues plan to expand their relationship in time, so that North American soccer “can stand toe to toe with the rest of the world.”

“That’s really what our objective is,” Garber said. “There’s no reason why this region, North America and CONCACAF overall, shouldn’t be as strong and as valuable.”

With assistance from Barry Bloom.

More from Sportico.com