What Manchester United's New Fan Park Means for Match-Day Fans
As Manchester United's official Motor sponsor, Chevrolet has taken over Car Park N2 on Wharfside Way, with the intention to create a Fan Park.
In July of this year, Chevrolet became official Automotive Partner and signed a world record seven year shirt sponsorship deal at the same time, which commences in 2014/15. The total value is believed to be £315m.
The bones of the deal are £11 million a year for the next two seasons and £45 million a year for seven years after that.
Chevrolet's involvement with football
Of course, Chevrolet expect a massive commercial dividend from deals such as this. They also became Liverpool's official Automotive Partner this summer.
Football has the greatest number of active participants and by far the largest number of fans of any sport in the world.
It might seem curious that Chevrolet would be cutting back on sports sponsorship in the US while signing a massive deal with an English "soccer" club. When you consider that United's market research recently claimed 659 million fans for their club alone worldwide, it begins to make sense.
And for all Liverpool's recent travails, they are still arguably the second best known English football brand on the planet.
Through their "One World Futbol" initiative, Chevrolet are taking a serious interest in football's potential to unite and develop impoverished or underprivileged fans and participants across the globe. They are, for example, giving away 1.5 million "virtually indestructible" footballs in such areas.
No doubt they will be targeting other football clubs as flag-bearers across Europe and other continents, such as South America and the Far East.
While Chevrolet's motives are not entirely altruistic or even philanthropic, the size of these sponsorships is somewhat surprising. Remember that their parent, GM, is 26% owned by the US Government (who bailed it out in 2007) and may be facing insolvency again.
So is this one last desperate throw of the dice, or are Chevrolet seriously trying to change the face of global football?
Probably both. It may have got its Marketing Executive fired as well.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether they survive long enough to actually implement the Manchester United shirt deal.
The idea of Fan Parks is not new. In European football they may have emerged somewhat pragmatically at previous European Championships and World Cups. When you have tens of thousands arriving at a football venue who don't have tickets, you have to entertain them.
So it became routine to provide not only giant TV screens, but also food and drink and even entertainment. Adjacent camping facilities have also become a commonplace.
Fan Parks have been around much longer in the US, especially for baseball and American Football. The fundamental difference from English football is that fans don't often go to a venue with the intention of spending the day there.
That also is beginning to change. The London Olympic Committee incorporated a giant fan park in the design of the Stratford site where the main venues were located. This was wildly successful, helped not only by good weather but also the presence of all the global broadcasters on site.
Fan parks are also well established in South Africa and became an integral part of the World Cup in 2010. They will also be present in Brazil in 2014.
The fan experience in England
There were fan parks in England at the time of the last World Cup in 2010. Again, these were mainly about beer, food and giant screens, but the times are changing.
The traditional match-day experience, when all football matches were played on a Saturday at 3pm, was a lunchtime trip to the pub; maybe a bite to eat or a snack in hand on the way to the ground, before rolling up with 15 minutes to go.
Little has changed around Old Trafford. The walk up Village Way may pass only one pub, but there are many temporary hot dog and burger stands, vying for attention with scarf and souvenir sellers.
Nowadays, I usually time my arrival at the car park I use, some eight minutes away, for at least one hour before kick-off.
When I arrive at the ground, I buy a programme, go through the turnstiles and then get a beer or coffee and a pie. There are screens all over the place where fans can watch a live Sky Premier League match if there is one, or failing that MUTV's "Matchday Live".
Twenty minutes before kick-off I will wander up to my seat to watch the end of the player warm-up, work out the starting line-up and substitutes and read the programme until kick-off.
The majority of fans will dash off at or before the end of the match, despite regular text message encouragement by Old Trafford management for fans to continue their experience in the stadium bars until the traffic has eased.
Again, there is much consumption of "food in the hand" on the return to cars.
Manchester United fan parks
After Chevrolet's sponsorship deal, two things were immediately noticeable:
First, they had taken over Car Park N2 from Audi (the previous automotive sponsor).
That sponsorship included a facility for any owner of an Audi car to apply for free match-day parking in N2. Chevrolet are offering the same facility, which commenced for the Tottenham match in late September.
Second, not only was N2 closed to parking at the first match of the season against Fulham, but it was all set up with razzamataz to promote Chevrolet cars.
Fans were invited by a succession of hugely presentable young ladies to sit in and enjoy the Chevrolet experience in their full range of cars. This included the Corvette, which Sir Alex has since banned his Under 23s from driving!
This is now an evolving experience. In August, Chevrolet announced a fans' short film competition aimed at capturing the fans' experience.
As automotive sponsors of both Manchester United and Liverpool, Chevrolet participated in the Fan Parks on the pre-season tours of both clubs, as well as sponsoring the matches and "Chevrolet Cups".
The most successful fan park was probably before the Amazulu vs. Manchester United match on 18 July in Durban, South Africa.
The Old Trafford experience
Of course, the use of Car Park N2 at Old Trafford by Chevrolet will continue to evolve. There is more than enough space to accommodate food, drink and entertainment providers if decided.
Whether they would come in from Village Way or be sold in franchises will be interesting to see. If the latter, it would not be too surprising to see the "golden hoops" involved. McDonalds already has a "Kick Start" coaching partnership with the FA for grass roots development at national and club level.
On arrival at the Wigan game, I was greeted by a Chevrolet promotions assistant as I walked past the entrance to N2. As well as being invited to try the cars, I received a free "poncho" shower cape.
For the Tottenham match there was free parking for Manchester United members available in N2. It is a big space at one of the two or three key approaches to the ground and ideal for the US style "Fan Park" experience.
The big potential problem is alcohol. For many years I would attend international rugby matches at Twickenham and it was routine to have barbecues off the back of shooting brakes in one of the car parks. Very much like the American experience.
A great deal of alcohol flowed but there was no misbehaviour.
Now that has all seemingly changed, for whatever reason. Maybe stadium owners want beer and food consumption inside, rather than in the Car Parks or the street. In which case they will have to massively rethink their offering.
Nobody minds standing up, but I also attended the Olympic Football Final at Wembley this August. While there were the classic beer and snack bars, there was also more sophisticated food and wine on offer, including at a number of cafe/bistros.
Roy Keane famously referred to the "prawn sandwich" brigade, in an oblique reference to football becoming a more "middle class" pastime, with corporate entertaining and much quieter sat down fans.
But that is the harsh reality in an increasingly commercial world. The most expensive stand tickets at Old Trafford are now over £60 if you aren't a member. At the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane they are even more expensive.
When you're paying that much you may not be entirely satisfied with a "Pukka Pie" and a plastic bottle of beer.
Even beer is a hurdle to overcome. As you approach Old Trafford there are "wheely bins" to dump alcohol and bottles into. When you get inside you can purchase beer but you can't take it (or any bottle with a cap on) "upstairs".
On European nights you can't even buy beer, courtesy of UEFA's ruling. That has to change. Behaviour at English football grounds is immeasurably better than some of what you see at some Dutch, German or Italian grounds in European competition.
It is part of the "English disease" as it used to be known, with hooliganism and drunkenness. But no more.
The shape of things to come
United have their share of "awayday" fans, like any football club. When your stadium holds 76,000 that's inevitable.
If you're over from Ireland (as so many are) or up from the South, you want a holistic experience. Maybe some do simply spend time in the pub before and after, before walking down Sir Matt Busby Way.
For others, there is one of the best museums in world football, together with the Manchester United shop.
Or, you can buy a match-day VIP package which could include any or all of the above, plus a tour of the Ground and a lunch which can even be hosted by a "United legend." These can cost from £99 to £299 per person.
But there is much more that could be offered outside the ground. Chevrolet are clearly serious about engaging with football on a global basis, from the biggest brands to the grass roots of the Third World.
It looks as if they would also like to bring something of the US style "fan park" experience to Old Trafford. They have the space and the commercial incentive to succeed.
Of course they will need to work with Manchester United themselves to ensure that whatever they do complements the club's own enterprises. Both parties have a vested interest in engaging fans more and for longer periods.
Nine years is a very long time in football and plenty to create a significant departure in English football that can be as successful as the "fan parks" at the World Cup and especially the London Olympics.
As well as Chevrolet's N2 Car Park, Manchester United own a substantial amount of real estate in the environs of Old Trafford. Between these two there surely is potential for the club to pioneer an established and well-loved experience from elsewhere as part of the English football fan's holistic match-day experience.
And then there is Gary Neville's Fans Hotel....
"We'll build a Car Park for the fans"
So Chevrolet have two years to come up with ideas to engage Manchester United fans. They have already promised to build a car park and give tickets to the fans.
That should be an interesting debate with the Old Trafford management. Chevrolet will almost certainly need to use land that Manchester United own, whether N2 or the vacant land further down Village Way. Here and elsewhere, United charge £10 to park, which augments commercial income.
Whether Chevrolet takes that one stage further and incorporates a whole "fan park", the experience is yet to be seen. The first tentative steps have been taken. If the Olympic experience is anything to go by, there is every possibility that it will transform the match-day experience.
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