• With 100 million fans, U.S. is sport’s biggest growth market
  • Barcelona’s plan includes youth academies, women’s pro team

In 1937, a cash-strapped Spanish soccer team came to the U.S. in an effort to stay afloat during a brutal civil war back home. On what is now known as the “salvation tour,” the club spent three months in North America, playing a handful of exhibitions that saved the team from bankruptcy.

Eight decades later, FC Barcelona is returning to the U.S. in much better shape. The team is one of the most valuable teams in the world, home to global superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar, and its American expansion is critical to the club’s plan to reach about $1.2 billion (1 billion euros) in revenue.

On Saturday the club beat Spanish rival Real Madrid 3-2 in a highly anticipated showdown in Miami. In addition to playing games in America this summer, Barcelona is opening a residential academy in Arizona, part of a wider network of training facilities, and is in talks to launch a California-based franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League. Both of those would be firsts for a European club.

“We want to lead in the project of introducing soccer to more and more young people in the U.S.,” Barcelona President Josep Bartomeu said. “We know that if we teach them soccer, they will be soccer fans, and probably most of them will root for Barcelona.”

Growth Market

It may be hard to imagine the U.S. as a growth market, but among soccer people, America is the object of everyone’s affection. There are significantly more soccer fans in the U.S. than there are people in Spain. And unlike in India and China, America’s internet, television and social media infrastructure makes it easy for teams — and, importantly, their sponsors — to reach those potential fans.

“It’s the largest market in the world in terms of programming and advertising,” said Jim Pallotta, an owner of Italian club AS Roma, which was one of the earliest to push into the U.S. “You have to be here.”

All of Europe’s…