Dispatch June 2009

The Selling of Soccer

How Manchester United, the best team in the world, teamed up with a Chicago reinsurance firm

When two executives of Chicago’s Aon Corp. went through their mail one day last fall, they each found a large package with a leather-encased box, containing, of all things, a soccer shirt with the company’s own logo emblazoned across the chest.  The shirts appeared to be bonafide red home jerseys of Manchester United, arguably the most famous sports team in the world—or at least in the world outside the soccer-suspicious United States.

They had the red and yellow team logo and the Nike swoosh, and were obviously high quality, but they were just mockups. Aon, which is Gaelic for “Oneness,” had no relationship with the team. It doesn’t even have anything to do with its own hometown teams, the Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, or Bears.

That overture led, eight months later, to a sponsorship and marketing deal in which AON paid a reported $130 million in exchange for having its logo on the jersey. The story of how this deal came about, and the benefits each party derives from it, offers an instructive look at the world of international commerce, where in the quest for global success, companies sometimes find themselves venturing into unexpected but auspicious pairings.

Manchester United is a giant on the world sports scene, transcending its un-sexy, industrial hometown in the same way Vince Lombardi’s Packers’ transcended little Green Bay. It’s fitting that the favorite book of its own legendary coach, Scotsman Alex Ferguson, is When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’s biography of Lombardi.

Based on worldwide polling of respondents' favorite and second-favorite teams, Manchester United has an estimated fan base of 333 million. Its record of championships is equivalent to the Yankees, with an impressive consistency and a Who’s Who roster of past and present players that includes superstars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo

The reach that Manchester United-related events, broadcasts, and products have around the world is staggering. Manchester United games are broadcast in more than 1.1 billion homes in more than 220 countries, attracting an estimated weekly audience of 88 million during the team’s 41-week season.  In addition, it has its own dedicated television channel, MUTV (a joint venture with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV), which is broadcast in 197 million homes via cable or internet in more than 100 countries.  Its website generates more than 60 million page impressions monthly, with 70 percent coming from outside the United Kingdom. Millions are signed up to receive the team’s email newsletters, and just last year, the team sold 2.2 million licensed jerseys – which doesn’t count the estimated 4.4 million bootleg sales. Affiliation with this team through sponsorship is an unparalleled opportunity for exposure.

Starting in 2006, Man U was sponsored by AIG. It was a four-year, $93 million deal that seemed to give a boost to the financial services company. Prior to the deal, New York-based AIG did not make it into the so-called Interbrand survey, an influential annual list of the top 100 global brands. A year after the deal, AIG was the highest new entry onto the list, at number 47. The reason cited was: “The insurer is pushing harder to make a name. Its sponsorship of Manchester United puts AIG in front of millions of fans throughout Asia and Europe.” At about the same time, AIG rose from 84 to 30 in the Barrons list of World’s Most Respected Companies.

As the economy imploded in 2008, AIG decided not to renew the arrangement when the contract expired in 2010. Even before AIG decided to end its sponsorship, Man U had been strategizing about attracting a more lucrative shirt sponsor, and finding a partner with a similar interest in growing in China, India, and other emerging markets. It considered AIG a fine partner, but it also suspected that the firm may have underpaid for the value it was getting. Man U’s London office began researching potential new partners.

Manchester United was systematic in its approach, going through stacks of data on companies worldwide and, according to team officials, targeting a “substantial number,” sending each of them the mock jersey, along with individually tailored pitch brochures, explaining how the team could provide solutions to each company’s competitive needs.

Presented by

James Warren is a former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune who writes for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and is a political analyst for MSNBC. He has previously written for the Atlantic on Kissinger and Nixon.

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