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MLS: All-Stars or Scrubs?

The league plays a dangerous game with its friendlies against Manchester United

Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy

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Executives at Major League Soccer believe they offer the most compelling All-Star Game format in all of American sports. For better or worse, they may be right.

On Wednesday night, for the second year in the row, the MLS All-Stars will line up against Manchester United, one of the wealthiest, best supported, and most successful soccer teams in the world, for a 90-minute "friendly." For the Red Devils, it will be a nice little kick-about on a summer night in New Jersey, part of the team's weeks-long pre-season tour of America as it prepares to chase a record 20th English Premier League title.

For MLS, there's quite a bit more at stake.

That's because the All-Star Game, in its current format, is a relatively high-stakes marketing gamble for the league. By bringing in a juggernaut like Manchester United, MLS guarantees eyeballs—but also runs the risk of exposing the quality gap between its clubs and teams in overseas leagues. And closing that gap, or least the perception of it, is crucial to one of MLS's major marketing challenges today—converting fans of foreign teams who are skeptical of the U.S. league into supporters of their local MLS clubs.

Of course, there are upsides for MLS regardless of Wednesday's score line. "Some professional sports teams or leagues might use Bobblehead Night to drive consumer awareness and demand. We actually bring in an international club and create an event," says Dan Courtemanche, evp of communications for MLS. "It's almost event marketing 101. It drives sales and demand."

Wednesday's game, he says, will also showcase the 27,000-seat Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., which opened in 2010, and raise the profile of the local team in one of the league's most important markets. "We could have gone up the road to the New Meadowlands Stadium and sold that out at 80,000. And certainly from a revenue standpoint, that would have been more advantageous," says Courtemanche. "But from a marketing standpoint, this provides us the ability to showcase this stadium for the metropolitan New York City area, and really build the profile of the local team, the New York Red Bulls. We can show the in-stadium atmosphere, and people can sample what they can expect week in and week out with the Red Bulls."

Still, Courtemanche acknowledges that MLS could use a good result in the game, particularly after losing 5-2 to United in last year's All-Star Game, held in Houston. (The MLS won four of the five All-Star Games before that against foreign competition—its only blemish a loss on penalties to Everton, also of the English league. In the early years following its launch in 1996, MLS pitted the East against the West in a more traditional domestic-only All-Star format.)

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