Sunday, July 24, 2005

ManU's "win-win-win" in Asia

Which nation boasts the greatest number of Manchester United supporters? According to market research, an astonishing 23 million people in China describe themselves as United supporters - more than double the figure for Britain and Ireland combined. ManU’s modern rise coincided with the rebirth of Chinese football (the country’s first professional competition, the C-League, was inaugurated a year after ManU won the Premiership for the first time, in 1993) and many of the Chinese who looked abroad for a foreign team to support alighted on United. Their thinking has not budged since.

Given the undeveloped nature of the Chinese market, ManUare not the only club looking to establish a foothold. "Real [Madrid] are in Beijing just before us and Bayern Munich are also looking to be there,'' said Peter Draper, ManU’s director of marketing.

The good news for ManU is that there is already evidence of strong brand loyalty. Even the departure of David Beckham had little discernible impact on the club's popularity. Draper said: "We did some market research after David Beckham left us in China, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, and the only change we noticed was in Japan. If you look at how Japan market lots of products, they are very personality-led. We take the view that the team is everything, something that is set by the boss. He [Sir Alex Ferguson] doesn't like people popping up as megastars."

On a tour promoted by the international sports marketing giant IMG, the club will earn between £3 million and 4 million in match fees alone for eight days’ work.

Even more important is the effect the club’s presence in China has on would-be sponsors. Nearly every big company in the world is trying to get into China, whose market has such potential that a car manufacturer has paid about £100 million to have its name associated with the Beijing Olympics — purely within the Chinese domestic market.

ManU's reach within the country will let them extract ever greater fees from their “golden circle” of sponsors — Audi, Pepsi, Budweiser, Vodafone, Nike, Air Asia and ING are all partners in the current tour.

For ManU it is win-win-win. The more sponsors they help bring to China, the bigger their match fees and the more fans they can attract. “If you’re working with the right kind of brands, they can put you in places where you can’t go yourself,” said Draper. “If you can have Manchester United on a Pepsi can or a Budweiser can, that’s incredible exposure. It’s good for us and it ’s good for companies like Pepsi, so it becomes a virtuous circle.”

Even without the commercial tie-ups, United will earn a fee of around £3 million for their four matches in the Far East, starting with yesterday's 2-0 victory over a Hong Kong representative team. Most of the cheers in Hong Kong's national stadium were for Ryan Giggs, though the marketing men must have pinched themselves at the sight of Chinese winger Dong Fangzhou scoring a superb solo goal for United to add to Guiseppe Rossi's tap-in.

- Sunday Times, Telegraph, agencies.