Meet Manchester United

SUN JOURNAL

Marketing: With an assist from the New York Yankees, the English soccer champions hope to extend their empire to America.

March 19, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MANCHESTER, England -- Andy Mitten is living a fan's dream. He has traveled to 89 cities in 34 countries chronicling the rise of the world's most famous soccer team, Manchester United.

If anyone has any idea of the team's successful recipe, what makes it popular from Brighton to Beijing, from Singapore to Sydney, it is 27-year-old Mitten, who has turned a fan's passion into a full-time job publishing the United We Stand fan magazine.

"The thing about Manchester United is they get bigger and bigger slowly," he says. "And just when you think they can't get any bigger, they get bigger."

In this sodden old industrial city in northern England, in a stadium overlooking railroad tracks and an auto dealership and a strip of pubs, soccer's most famed and envied team is on show.

It is a team that the stock market values at $750 million, is so popular there's no need to set up a waiting list for 40,000 season tickets, which are written into wills, and is so talented that with about a month to play, it has almost clinched its seventh English Premier league title in nine seasons.

And it's a team so well-known globally that when the franchise's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, showed up with United Nations Children's Fund officials at a village in Inner Mongolia, he was greeted by a child who came out of a hut wearing the club's familiar red jersey.

Manchester United is the world game's world team.

And now the team wants you -- American sports fans, inhabitants of soccer's final frontier.

Last month, Manchester United and the New York Yankees announced a joint marketing agreement that includes sharing marketing information, developing sponsorships and selling each other's products. In a sign of how much the teams have to learn about one another, Manchester United's team executive and greatest former player, Sir Bobby Charlton, acknowledged that he didn't know the name of the Yankees' star player, shortstop Derek Jeter.

That's OK. Most Yankees and New Yorkers have never heard of Manchester United's star midfielder, David Beckham, who is one of the most famous athletes elsewhere and also happens to be married to Spice Girl Victoria Beckham.

Nor could many Americans identify Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's hard-nosed coach, who presides over a dynasty as dominant as the old Boston Celtics' or the Yankees'.

Whether the deal grows beyond Manchester United hawking Yankees caps and the Yankees selling Manchester United shirts could be one of the more captivating sports marketing stories of this century.

At the very least, it will probably expose more Americans to the Manchester United brand of red jerseys, precision play and astute marketing. The team figures it has 39 millions fans globally, as well as 7.3 million in Britain. A recent survey concluded 79 percent of China's population had an awareness of the team.

In Thailand, 10 million pull tabs from soda cans were turned in during a competition to win a trip to Old Trafford, the team's home grounds.

"We are a small market-based company of 600 employees with one of the biggest brands in the world," says Patrick Harverson, team spokesman.

Just how Manchester United got that way is a story of marketing muscle. In a game where team loyalties run through the blood, Manchester United has pulled off the most unusual soccer trick of all: It has attracted fans in nearly every corner of the globe even as it has presided over split loyalties in its hometown, with rival Manchester City enjoying a devoted following.

"We don't describe ourselves as the biggest, the greatest or the best. Other people do," says Peter Draper, the team's marketing director. "We try to describe ourselves as the most pioneering."

Manchester United's story is fashioned from talent, timing and tragedy.

From its 19th-century roots as a team of railway workers and named Newton Heath LYR to its recent success with millionaire players, Manchester United has left an indelible mark on a muscular city. Manchester, built on coal and cotton, was once pocked with the "dark satanic mills" of north England's industrial age immortalized by poet-painter William Blake.

The mills have given way to lofts for yuppies, but the team endures.

In the 1950s, when Baltimore embraced the Colts football team, another sporting story was taking place here, as Manchester United reached for English and European dominance under a coach named Matt Busby.

The coach brought together a young, swift team that was dubbed "Busby's Babes." Despite their youth, the members played with uncommon maturity, winning two English league titles in 1955-1956 and 1956-1957 and becoming the first English team to play its continental rivals in the European Cup.

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