MLS: All-Stars or Scrubs?

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

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.)

Should the MLS hold its own on Wednesday, "to the general sports fan, and maybe to the fan of European soccer, it would illustrate that MLS does have talented players and can stand toe to toe with one of the top clubs in the world," says Courtemanche.

And vice versa, presumably.

In any case, it won't be easy. In the two weeks since United arrived in the U.S., the team has torn up MLS clubs in three friendlies—beating the New England Revolution 4-1, the Seattle Sounders a shocking 7-0, and the Chicago Fire 3-1.

But in a broader sense, MLS doesn't look at overseas clubs purely as competition. In fact, Courtemanche sees surging interest in those teams—thanks to coverage on Fox Soccer Channel, Univision and ESPN, which has begun airing English games on weekend mornings—as helpful to the MLS cause.

"We're a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats, so the more people who are paying attention to soccer, the better it is for us," he says. "We encourage fans of European or Latin American soccer to continue watching those matches. It might be your hometown club, where your family grew up in Buenos Aires or London. But you live in this country now. Watch those games on Saturday morning on Fox Soccer or ESPN, and then on Saturday night come out to an MLS game and experience it live at the stadium."

In terms of its broader marketing activity, MLS has made heavier investments in social media lately, and now has a whole staff dedicated to Facebook, Twitter, mobile apps, and the like. "That wasn't even the case two years ago," says Courtemanche.

That's supplemented with traditional marketing in print, outdoor, and TV, as well as a significant investment in PR. With roughly 35 percent of the league's audience being Hispanic, there is also a heavy focus on Spanish-language media.

The league also counts on its four best-known players—David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafael Márquez, and Thierry Henry—to bring attention to the game simply with their star power.

The metrics look good this year—attendance is up, as are TV ratings. And the U.S. team's strong performance in the Women's World Cup has also galvanized interest in soccer, which has a trickle-down effect into MLS. But of course, marketing can only do so much. In the end, the product still has to improve before more people will become addicted to it.

"Our goal is to be the best soccer league in the world," Courtemanche says bluntly. "It's not going to happen tomorrow. It's not going to happen in three-five years. But could it happen within the next 10-20? Most definitely. Americans have a mentality that they want to see the best."

He adds: "We certainly have some incredible players, guys that can keep you on the edge of your seat, competing in Major League Soccer. But our challenge remains that some people view other leagues as being of better quality. So, we need to solve that problem."