x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trying to climb aboard the US gravy train

More and more Premier League clubs are now attempting to crack the America revenue code as they bid to enhance their world appeal.

A fan inspects the new Manchester United home shirt during an unveiling ceremony at Niketown in Chicago as the English Premier League club prepare for their pre-season tour of north America, which kicks off with a match against Celtic in Toronto today.
A fan inspects the new Manchester United home shirt during an unveiling ceremony at Niketown in Chicago as the English Premier League club prepare for their pre-season tour of north America, which kicks off with a match against Celtic in Toronto today.

There was near universal sneering in 2001 when Manchester United announced their "information-sharing link up" with the New York Yankees baseball team, a leviathan sporting franchise with whom United share many traits, most notably that they are loved and loathed throughout their home country.

The US had easily resisted previous attempts at establishing "soccer" as a major sport, and while the media imagined baseball mitts on sale in the Old Trafford Megastore, they foresaw little profit for United in return. United's attempts to break America were interpreted as yet more evidence of the club's grandiose and unrealistic schemes of marketing their brand throughout the world. Yet after an astonishing 271,000 people (in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia) paid to watch United's four pre-season matches in 2003, their transatlantic business venture began to look more like inspiration than empty rhetoric.

United had not played in the US for two decades, but they returned in 2004, this time joined by Chelsea and Liverpool, English rivals intent on cutting their own piece of what they considered to be the fast-expanding American soccer pie. Chelsea's involvement was significant. Like Manchester City now, they wanted to build their profile and fan base. Led by Peter Kenyon, who had been United's chief executive and key protagonist in their drive for stateside brand awareness, Chelsea were not afraid to admit their intentions.

Paul Smith, the chief executive, said: "We're looking to take the best practices of Manchester United because United have been the commercial template clubs would look to emulate. There are sporting and historical reasons for United's popularity in places like the US, but we'll look to their marketing elements and give them a Chelsea twist. With the amount of media attention focussed on Chelsea, there's a fascination well beyond west London and the UK."

Chelsea have been back to the States several times since, while both United and City are on their pre-season tours in north America. Both have ambitions to cultivate, but while City are, in the club's own words, "on a pioneering adventure" which is currently seeing them take in games against Sporting Lisbon, New York Red Bulls, Club America and finally Inter Milan, the European champions, the US market has not been plain sailing for United.

The US offers a panacea for many of the difficulties associated with tours of Asia. In the US, tickets for sport events are expensive, counterfeiters pursued and training facilities top quality. United were well placed to prosper in the States as they counted Nike, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch among their primary sponsors, companies interested in raising global sales on the back of the popularity of English football.

When Mori, the research group, weighed in with the news that United had four million American converts, United teamed up with the fledgling Champions World, headed by the colourful Charlie Stillitano, who had been fired in disgrace as general manager of New York/New Jersey's Major League Soccer franchise in 2000. Champions World had gained credibility through promoting the 2002 Italian Super Cup in New Jersey between Roma and Juventus, attracting 80,000. That huge attendance was one reason for the Premier League's ill-fated 39th game proposal in 2009. The US was supposed to represent the final frontier for the world's most popular game.

United had played in the States as long ago as 1950, when the players crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. However the initial euphoria of mixing with stars of the day like Clark Gable soon faded as United played more than a dozen games before poor crowds. Exhausted by the long domestic season, the disgruntled players were denied their £5 (Dh28) expenses. They had returned again in 1967, when they played Benfica.

In 2003, United appeared finally to have cracked the US, taking on a clutch of top European sides. A jubilant Stillitano high-fived the obviously uncomfortable Sir Bobby Charlton, the Manchester United director. Unlike their opponents Barcelona, Juventus and Celtic in the grandiosely titled "World Series", United charmed, producing a slick media guide and making sometimes reluctant players available for interview. The club's well-rehearsed tragedy-to-success history only added to their trans-Atlantic appeal. The promoters, naturally, were delighted.

There were glitches, though most were merely amusing. The effusive public address announcer in New York referred to Sir Bobby as "Carlton" and Paul Scholes as "Shoals". A journalist in Los Angeles told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was his "favourite Man U player". David Beckham may have left for Real Madrid (another journalist actually said "Ferguson, you screwed up big time selling Beckham" to the grim-faced Scot), but United took a full squad who put on a display of excellent football.

An average per game of 67,872 watched United's four matches, crowds for soccer unequalled in the US since Pele retired and the New York Cosmos faded into history. One firm estimated that United had gained seven million new American fans thanks to a five-year television deal with Fox Broadcasting. The stronger dollar meant that United earned US$3.5 million (Dh12.8m). The players loved the anonymity the US offered. Scholes hopped off the team coach on Fifth Avenue because he wanted to walk down a street without people staring at him.

United's success also attracted the attention of businessman Malcolm Glazer, who began to increase his holdings in the club's shares. Both Chelsea and Liverpool played in the States the following summer, as did Bayern Munich, Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus and Boca Juniors, all of them keen to leap aboard what they saw as football's new gravy train. But 2004 was the year of the European championships in Portugal. International players were given a break after the championships and did not go to the States.

"The tough years are when the World Cup finals and European Championships take place," said Andy Anson, United's marketing chief until 2007 and now in charge of England's 2018 World Cup bid. "It's impossible do a proper tour where a club commands top dollar, because so many players are missing." Both United and City are attempting that at the moment, as are fellow Premier League club Tottenham, but there are dangers of a public-relations own goal.

Though the unsettling image of thousands of empty stadiums are less likely to be seen on the City tour, despite the Eastlands club's reduced profile in the States: the club will play Sporting Lisbon, and the New York Red Bulls two days later, in a new, 25,000-capacity venue in New York next weekend. City's third match is in the 70,000-capacity Georgia Dome, and the opponent, Club America of Mexico, is sure to help sell tickets, no matter which players City leaves in England.

"It is a problem," conceded Roberto Mancini, the City manager. "But after a World Cup it is also very important that the players recover very well, because they will be very tired and it is a long season." United's weakened squad could experience a backlash during their games in large stadiums in Toronto, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Houston over the next two weeks. United's tie-up with the Yankees baseball team was quietly dropped and despite having American owners United did not return to the States. Until now.

"There's no easy way back into the USA for British clubs," Anson said, "because there's no obvious promoter who will pay the same revenues as Champions. They overstretched themselves." United and City will hence both make considerably less money than United did in 2003 and 2004. But the positives of doing a pre-season in the US remain. @Email:sports@thenational.ae