They claim to have 659 million fans worldwide (nearly a tenth of the world’s population), are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and have marketing offices in London, Hong Kong and, shortly, the East Coast of the United States—likely New York City.
Their 33 official sponsors include American vehicle manufacturer Chevrolet, who will have their logo on the iconic red shirt for the next seven years at a cost of $559 million, as well as Nike, DHL, Turkish Airlines and Toshiba. Companies pay big money to register themselves as everything from their “official wine” (Casillero del Diablo) to their “official noodles” (Mamee).
We are talking, of course, about Manchester United—the most popular sports property in the world, and the most supported European football team in the United States.
But to what do United owe their massive, U.S.-based following?
You don’t develop an enormous, dedicated, global fanbase overnight. Just ask Chelsea and Manchester City.
A club needs a back story that compels interest, even tugs at the heartstrings, in order to enter the public consciousness.
For Manchester United, so much of the modern narrative can be traced back to February 6, 1958—the day the team’s airplane hurtled off a Munich runway and burst into flames, taking the lives of numerous crew, passengers and eight United players, among them Duncan Edwards, who, at just 21 years of age, was well on his way to becoming one of the best English footballers of all time.
The Munich Air Disaster was a devastating blow to a young, up-and-coming side that had already won back-to-back titles, but it also galvanized support for a club that, before Sir Matt Busby came along, had won only two championships.
Busby rebuilt the team over the next decade, and by the time they won the European Cup in 1968 they had become something of a pop culture phenomenon. Of course, the presence of George Best—the “fifth Beatle”—had more than a little to do with that.
United made the most important signing in their history when they hired Alex Ferguson as manager on November 6, 1986.
Although the Red Devils were, for all intents and purposes, a “big club” at the time, they had only seven first division titles to their name and hadn’t finished atop the league in 20 years. Ferguson took it upon himself to establish a winning culture at the club and micromanaged just about everything at Old Trafford during his first few seasons there.
It’s been more than 26 years since his appointment, but Ferguson hasn’t gone anywhere. He has, however, delivered 13 Premier League titles, two European Cups, five FA Cups and four League Cups. He was also recognized with a knighthood in 1999, shortly after winning an unprecedented treble.
There is no substitute for winning. You can have the best marketing strategy in the world, but unless there is silverware to back you up, you are merely a brand generator, manufacturing your own success.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s first title with United could not have come at a better time.
The newly formed Premier League was embarking on its inaugural season in the late summer of 1992, and with it would come an unprecedented payday as sponsors and television rights-holders fought tooth and nail for a piece of the pie.
United’s era of dominance happened to take off just as all that money was flooding into the English game, but they made every effort to capitalize on the new financial landscape as well.
All of a sudden, tours to Asia, Africa and the United States became the norm, and with their Premier League success, as well as a beefed-up marketing arm, United became the club best positioned to generate a truly global following.
Last summer a survey commissioned to Kantar found a worldwide fanbase of 659 people, 71 million of which lived in the Americas. (Although the survey’s results raised eyebrows, Kantar had also compiled similar data for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool, none of which came close to approaching United’s numbers.)
Just last month, NBC announced a lucrative broadcasting agreement with the Premier League—a deal made possible by the attention generated by England’s biggest clubs, of which United is by far the biggest.
In an interview with the BBC, Sporting Intelligence editor Nick Harris summed up United’s influence on the American sports scene appropriately, saying, “American sports can be quite insular. [American] sports fans think that the NBA, the NFL and MLB are global sports, but of course they’re not.”
He added: “They’re primarily sports with American audiences. They perhaps don’t realize that football is the only truly global game. Manchester United wanted to ram home quite how global football is.”