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MLS Has Outgrown This All-Star Format

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With a premise based on inferiority, player snubs and even entire-team snubs galore, MLS' All-Star Game is due for an overhaul.

The MLS All-Star Game is this week in Kansas City. And when I say this week, I mean starting Saturday and lasting through at least Wednesday, when the game between the MLS All-Stars (MLSAS) and AS Roma actually takes place. I didn't see a Thursday morning brunch planned; maybe there's something less formal for that. If you're interested, Town Topic near Broadway and Southwest Blvds has great Yelp reviews.

The league has amped up the volume on the all-star game the last few years, touting it as one of the jewels of the season. I've never been, but it looks like fun. I'm sure it's a profitable mix of sponsorship, soccer and celebrity. However, as MLS matures it has to understand that this format is becoming an insult to the league and is a disservice to its players and fans.

Is MLS Really That Bad?

The basic premise of the game was at one point true: If all the very best MLS players got together and played on the same team, they might challenge a good team from Europe. But today, is that still the case? As a league, how defeatist is that?

Since 2005, MLS has trotted out some of its elite players each July against a foreign club team that's usually in its pre-season. Talk about a no-win situation. If MLSAS wins, it doesn't really say much for the progress of the league; it took MLS' best to defeat a single out-of-season foreign club. If they lose, it's an embarrassment. If Don Garber wants MLS to be a top world league by 2020, he needs to stop advocating an all-star format that directly states that it's not.

Elite MLS Players Snubbed in Favor of a Foreign Club Team

Player snubs are unavoidable and happen in every all-star cycle in every sport. This year in MLS, the list includes Donovan Ricketts, Javier Morales and Federico Higuain. But when one compares MLS to other domestic sports leagues, it is apparent that the problem is much worse for MLS. Even the NBA, arguably the most superstar-driven team sports league in the world, spreads the wealth to 68% more of its players than MLS. Instead of celebrating players would fill MLS ASG roster spots 21-40 in an East vs West format, MLS spends time and energy promoting a club from a different league.

Further, if this format is maintained, the issue will only worsen as MLS expands. Below, I've detailed the most recent all-star figures for MLB, the NHL, the NBA and MLS. I've also included MLS figures if there were 20 or 24 teams.

League Active Roster Players
All-Stars % of Players Represented
MLB 750 68 9.1%
NHL 690 54 7.8%
NBA 450 26 5.8%
MLS - 19 teams 570 20* 3.5%
MLS - 20 teams 600 20 3.3%
MLS - 24 teams 720 20 2.8%

*And no, I'm not using MLS' official figure of 32 all-stars. While 12 players are named to the "Inactive Roster", that doesn't mean jack squat for fans and serves only as a contractual recognition for the players.

Bumming Out Lots of Fans

This overly-elite all-star format has another unfortunate consequence; many less teams are represented than in, say, an East vs West format.

The first all-star game I remember watching was the 1987 MLB game. Being a nine-year-old Cincinnati Reds fan, I was incredibly proud that Eric Davis, John Franco and Bo Diaz were in it. From that point on, every July I watched all-star games simply to cheer on my team's players; I enjoyed seeing my local heroes perform on the national stage. On the other hand, when my team had no participants in the game, I rarely bothered to tune in.

MLS really own-goals it in this regard. Now that Jack Mac is in the game, 13 of the league's 19 teams are represented in 2013; up until yesterday, this figure was only 12. Said differently, nearly a third of MLS teams have no representation in the game.

Another look at the other domestic mid-season all-star games shows that other than the happy-to-allow-team-stacking NBA, MLS is again much different.

League Teams Teams Represented % of Teams Represented
MLB 30 30 100%
NHL 30 27 90%
NBA 30 16 53%
MLS 19 13 68%

Suggestion: Bring Back East vs West

MLS 2013 is 100% different than MLS 2005. If the East vs West format returned, all of the above issues would be addressed. The MLS All-Star Game would be a celebration of all things MLS, the percentage of players represented would jump to 7%, and the number of teams with players in the game would likely hit 16-17. In fact, with more of the league's elite players, teams and fans engaged, the event would likely be more attractive for sponsorships and TV viewership. At the very least, MLS wouldn't be feeding its own inferiority complex.