Manchester draws fans here, there, everywhere

Soccer: Man U stirs a crowd not only in its England hometown, but wherever it goes, as its U.S. trip attests.


July 27, 2004|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MANCHESTER, England - This may be England's third-largest city, but Manchester thinks of itself as second.

The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, one-time processor of 80 percent of the world's cotton, Manchester has diversified and transformed itself into a tourist destination. Its rich cultural scene is highlighted by its contributions to rock 'n' roll. Hugely popular bands have rolled off the city's production line for more than 40 years, from the Hollies to the Smiths to Oasis.

There is a thriving gay community here, a large university and a statue of Abraham Lincoln. And at this very moment, 100 life-sized, individually decorated fiberglass cows adorn the city streets.

Manchester United made a cameo appearance in Chicago Sunday when it lost to Germany's Bayern Munich, 4-2, before 58,121 at Soldier Field in the opening match of its second consecutive U.S. summer tour. Man U goes on to Philadelphia tomorrow and East Rutherford, N.J., Saturday in what is likely to be the club's last U.S. visit for at least three years.

Reflection of city

The world's most famous soccer team very much reflects its birthplace. Its marketing and competitive success have run parallel with and to some extent contributed to the reshaping of the city's image over the last decade.

"You go virtually anywhere in the world and say you're from Manchester, and people say, `Manchester United,' " said Andrew Stokes, managing director of Marketing Manchester, the city's public relations arm.

"We recognize that Manchester United is one of the great sporting brands in the world. And when you're trying to market a destination, anything that can affiliate you with such a strong brand has to be seen as a positive."

A 1996 IRA bombing forced a complete makeover of the city center. After an unsuccessful Olympic bid, Manchester pressed forward by hosting the 2002 Commonwealth Games, a multi-sport event second only to the Olympics in size. The city's legacy was a plethora of new athletic facilities and rebuilt infrastructure that make it attractive for future events.

But as Chicago discovered when Michael Jordan's Bulls made the city a household word in far-flung places, a team can be the most effective ambassador of all.

Research commissioned by the club indicates 50 million people worldwide consider themselves Man U fans. The club has 2 million fans and 515,000 e-mail addresses on its in-house database and counts 40,000 season-ticket holders, some of whom live in Ireland and Malaysia and fly in for games. The club sold 2.5 million jerseys last year.

As a publicly held company, the club's ledger is watched as closely as developments on the field. Although the majority of the team's shareholders are small investors, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer controls 19.2 percent of the club and has upped his share twice this year. Irish horse racing partners John Patrick McManus and John Magnier jointly hold another 28.8 percent. Takeover rumors get as much media play as trade talk.

For Joe Bloke, there are Man U mortgages, credit cards and insurance policies. The club owns a financial services branch, MU Finance, that is affiliated with several prestigious banks and markets itself with the slogan, "You win, we win."

Victories on the field didn't come so easily in the season just ended, however.

After an 11-year stretch in which Man U won eight league titles and numerous other cup championships - a stretch called a "purple patch" here - some of the color faded this year. Man U jettisoned celebrated midfielder David Beckham, lost defender Rio Ferdinand for much of the season to a drug-related suspension and finished a non-threatening third in the English Premier League.

Yet team marketing manager Peter Draper said he doesn't expect the club's support to erode much, if at all.

"Historically, our fans don't go away," Draper said. "We have a huge fan base. Even if some go away, we'll still have a huge fan base."

Founded by railway workers in 1878, the club began to build its reputation in the years after World War II. That progress was interrupted tragically in 1958 when 23 people, including nine players, were killed in a plane crash outside Munich.

Famed manager Matt Busby and the other survivors regrouped and, with players such as Bobby Charlton and George Best, became a powerhouse in the 1960s. Demoted to the second division briefly in the '70s, Man U rebuilt again and entered its own modern era with the hiring of manager Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986.

That other team

Like any sporting behemoth, Manchester United engenders its share of vitriol. Much of it comes from the "Blues," fans of cross-town rival Manchester City.

The Blues and Reds, whose loyalties don't follow any particular geographic or socio-economic lines, are more alienated from one another than liberals and conservatives or perhaps even Cubs and White Sox fans.

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