Since 2019, the average MLS team’s valuation has climbed 85% to $579 million.

At the Los Angeles Football Club’s University Hills training facility, some 10 weeks after winning its first Major League Soccer title in a thrilling penalty shootout, lead managing owner Bennett Rosenthal is still processing his team’s spectacular season. “It’s a life experience that you don’t expect,” the 59-year-old says. “I think we’re all still smiling every day.”

Now Rosenthal has something else to celebrate—Forbes estimates that LAFC is worth $1 billion, just nine years after it joined MLS for an expansion fee of $110 million, making it the league’s first billion-dollar franchise. That’s more than double the $475 million Forbes determined it was worth in 2019, the last time we assessed North American soccer teams.

That’s an impressive return, but not one Rosenthal was banking on. “We did not do this because we thought it was the best place to put our capital,” says the cofounder of the $341 billion (AUM) Ares Management, who made his fortune finding profitable alternative investments. “We thought it could be fun and we’re making a great macro bet on the growth of the sport.”

LAFC’s ascent is the latest sign of just how much MLS has grown since it was founded in 1996. There are now 29 teams in the league—it began with 10—with St. Louis City SC set to debut this season. Since 2019, the average team valuation has climbed 85%, from $313 million to $579 million. And the price tag for the next expansion team (likely Las Vegas or San Diego) is expected to be $500 million, according to a well-placed industry source, a considerable increase from the previous record of $325 million set by billionaire David Tepper when he founded Charlotte FC in 2019.

Billionaires have long believed in the potential of MLS. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and entertainment mogul Philip Anschutz were among MLS’ original owners, and a slew of others—including Tepper, Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto (Chicago Fire, 2018) and Qualtrics’ Ryan Smith (Real Salt Lake, 2022)—have since gotten in the game and driven up team values.

“It’s less of a financial hurdle to control an MLS team than [in] some other sports, so you do see more people who can do it,” says Rosenthal, who is worth an estimated $1.3 billion. “But I think people love it. They want to be a part of the community and the trajectory.” Forbes estimates there are at least 19 billionaires or members of billionaire families who have key ownership stakes in MLS franchises.

Rosenthal, who fell in love with soccer while managing his daughter’s team, and Apollo Global Management partner Larry Berg, who played the sport from age 8, became LAFC minority owners in 2014. The two knew each other well from the private equity world and had together invested in Italian soccer club A.S. Roma. “To be honest,” Berg says, “MLS wasn’t really sexy yet.” In 2016, they increased their stakes and became LAFC’s co–managing owners along with Riot Games cofounder Brandon Beck, who had invested in 2015, each agreeing to rotate as the team’s lead owner every four years. Rosenthal took on that role in January. As befits a team in Los Angeles, several celebrities—including Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm—have minority stakes in the club. Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber is LAFC’s executive chairman. Meanwhile, LAFC built a $350 million, 22,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in downtown L.A. and barnstormed soccer bars and held pep rallies to build interest. It even sent fans to a match in Germany to study European fan culture.