MLS Rides World Cup Wave with Manchester United Tour

19 Jul

Landon Donavan will lead a squad of MLS All-Stars in a friendly match against Manchester United.

With more than 700 million people worldwide watching last weekend’s World Cup finale, there’s no time like the present to cash in on the renewed interest in soccer in the United States. And Major League Soccer isn’t taking any chances with its upcoming North American Tour, which will hit four major markets in a bid to keep soccer fever going by tapping into one of the planet’s most recognized sports franchises, England’s superstar Manchester United.

“Manchester is arguably the world’s most prominent sports brand,” said the league’s Executive Vice President of Marketing, Dan Courtemanche. “It’s a team made up of global stars, many with World Cup experience, so we’re expecting large crowds at these exhibition matches.”

Manchester United carries an approximate $2 million per game price tag, said Courtemanche, so all four dates on the tour will play to big crowds with a minimum capacity of 45,000 up to a maximum of 70,000.  He expects sell-outs at each venue based on previous visits by international superstar teams.

Among the most anticipated stops is the July 28 All-Star game at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, which will get a boost from an appearance by U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan in a game Courtemanche dubbed “MLS versus the world.” It is the first time Manchester will be playing against an all-star U.S. team, whose roster is made up of players who are, thanks to the World Cup, now international stars.

Though the World Cup has helped pique interest in soccer in North America, Courtemanche said the international competition on display during the tour will dovetail with the organization’s paramount belief in using the sport of soccer to promote MLS.

The legendary football club, known as the Red Devils, has already brought its 23-man travel roster – including such major names as midfielders Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, as well as Holland’s Edwin van der Sar, Portugal’s Nani and Bulgaria’s Dimitar Berbatov – to North American shores in early July to begin doing press for the events. And, in a bid to tap into the huge soccer-crazy Hispanic population in major markets, Manchester’s new Mexican forward, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will join the tour just before the Red Devils’ game against the MLS All-Stars in Houston on July 28.

The rest of the opponents on the tour include the Kansas City (Mo.) Wizards at Arrowhead Stadium on July 25th, Philadelphia Union at Lincoln Financial Field on July 21 and Celtic F.C at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on July 16

Rob Thomson, VP of Communications for the KC Wizards, said he’s excited to mark the first event at the new Arrowhead Stadium following a two-year renovation. With the next closest MLS cities a nine-hour drive away, Thomson expects to draw from a wide region for the Manchester game, the biggest soccer event of its kind in the area since a 2001 World Cup qualifying match that drew a more modest 37,000 fans.

“Two months ago [we would have been happy with the current 50,000 in sales], but now? No. We have our eyes on the prize of having a soccer sellout in a huge venue,” he said of the hype created by the World Cup.

The Wizards ran local TV ads for the game during every televised World Cup match and there has been local and regional print advertising as well as a healthy dose of online outreach. Because so many soccer fans follow the international game on the Internet, Thomson said buying keywords on Google, Yahoo and AOL should pay dividends at the box office, in addition to an outreach to club soccer teams in nearby Omaha, Wichita, Des Moines and the local Latino communities.

In addition, Manchester players have made themselves available to answer questions in writing and on video and Thomson said local TV and radio stations have been playing the clips on a daily basis for weeks.

While he would not discuss the marketing budget for the game, Thomson said it was a “healthy” separate budget from what the team typically spends on advertising and that it came out of the Wizards budget, with help from the NFL’s Chiefs as well. The football franchise also shared their season ticket database and e-mail list to help spread the word in an effort to showcase the stadium in a bid to bring the World Cup to Kansas City in the future.

The tour – presented by MLS and the Creative Artists Agency – marks the first time Manchester has played in the U.S. Among the promotional efforts being employed are multitiered ticket packages, which include a Visa presale, then windows for season ticket holders and 4-pack offers that include tickets to three Houston Dynamo games along with the purchase of an All-Star game ticket.

At press time more than 45,000 tickets had been sold for the game in Houston at Reliant, with some $20 seats left. Courtemanche said he is confident that the 900,000 Mexican-American Houstonians in the area will help put that game over the top thanks to the presence of Hernandez. — Gil Kaufman

Contacted for this story: Rob Thomson, (913) 226-6024; Dan Courtemanche, (212) 450-1262

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