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Friday, May 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Soccer

Red, White & Man U

The Washington Post

Picture a professional sports team that has the tradition of hockey's Montreal Canadiens, wins as often as baseball's New York Yankees and evokes as much love and disdain as football's Dallas Cowboys. Picture a team that exudes the glamour of basketball's Los Angeles Lakers yet adheres to a financial discipline that makes Wall Street proud.

Manchester United, the English soccer team, is probably the wealthiest, winningest, most popular professional sports team in the world.

"Man U," as the team is known to 53 million fans worldwide and its legions of detractors (known as ABUs for "Anyone But United"), is launching a four-city U.S. tour this summer aimed at penetrating America's $15 billion-a-year professional sports market — something no other soccer business has been able to achieve. It hopes to create enough buzz in North America to spur fans to its Web site, to buy its magazine, to watch it on television and to some day buying everything from Man U curtains to Man U credit cards.

"It's not about the flashy boys riding into town and taking the market," said Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon. "It's a slow burn. It's about a successful tour, about grass roots continuing to develop ... about a long-term strategy of developing business out there, creating relationships with fans and supporting key sponsors."

The short-term goal is filling seats in the four U.S. stadiums in which United is playing, and so far the signs are positive. Tickets at Seahawks Stadium (July 22 vs. Scotland's Glasgow Celtic) and Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field (Aug. 3 vs. Barcelona) sold out in a matter of hours, according to the tour's promoter, ChampionsWorld. Giants Stadium in New Jersey (July 31 vs. Juventus of Italy) is nearly sold out. Only the Los Angeles Coliseum (July 27 vs. Club America of Mexico) still has plenty of seats available.

Sports industry experts said the tour is likely to be a success both for the team (United's fee is estimated at around $3 million, plus expenses) and for promoters because of the curiosity factor. United hasn't played in the United States in decades.

Soccer's had difficulty gaining a foothold here. The North American Soccer League shut down after its 1984 season and Major League Soccer, in its eighth year, has lost millions of dollars. But Manchester United isn't just any team. Unlike most U.S. pro sports franchises, which rely almost exclusively on hometown boosterism, Man U has developed a worldwide following among millions of fans who have no connection to the city, once a shipping and textile center and the third-most populous city in Britain.

"They have mystique. They have cachet. And they have an international superstar in (David) Beckham," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based consulting firm. "They are going to be the only soccer entity to crack the U.S. market in an effective way."

United is often compared to baseball's Yankees because of both teams' tradition of winning championships, fielding great players as well as off-field tragedies that elevated each team to something beyond mere statistics.

"There are lots of parallels between us and the Yankees: history, tradition, success," said Kenyon.

Just as Lou Gehrig's farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, given when he was terminally ill, became one of the most hallowed moments in American sports history, Manchester United's emergence from regional team to a national presence began Feb. 6, 1958, with the crash of an airplane. Returning from a 3-3 tie in Belgrade, the team's plane crashed on a refueling stop in Munich. Twenty-three people were killed, including eight players.

"They became the nation's team after that," said Nigel Cunniffe, a native of Britain who lives in northern New Jersey.

Their home field, Old Trafford, was bombed in World War II but part of the original complex survived. And even ABUs say there is a special feeling upon entering the stadium, just as many baseball fans look at Yankee Stadium as the cathedral of baseball.

"These are things you can't duplicate," said Charlie Stillitano, chief executive officer of ChampionsWorld.

They're also just fun to watch. Beckham, with his matinee-idol looks and his marriage to pop singer Posh Spice (Victoria Adams), is in some ways the Joe Namath of soccer. He's also believed by some to be the best pure ball striker in the world, with the ability to sink and swerve a shot around defenders with precision. A popular new independent movie carries his name in the title: "Bend It Like Beckham."

The team is known for last-minute comebacks that would do Joe Montana proud. The most memorable may be a come-from-behind victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 in which Man U scored two late goals to win the prestigious European Champions Cup in Barcelona.

"It was the only time in my life that I experienced a religious moment," said Cunniffe. "It was the greatest moment of my life."

That's the kind of fanaticism that makes Manchester United confident it can crack the U.S. market.

"We're under no illusions, but we're not the king of Tiddly Winks," said Peter Draper, the team's marketing director. "We're part of the biggest sport there is."

Money, talent and marketing came together in the early 1990s and transformed Manchester United from a respectable and beloved team into a power on the field and in the boardroom. Satellite television broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting poured big money into English soccer with the signing of a three-year, nearly $300 million television deal for the rights to the nascent FA Premier League, of which Man U was a member. In 1993, Manchester United went on a winning streak comparable to the Boston Celtics of the 1950s or the New York Yankees of the 1930s or the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. United won the Premier League title seven times, the FA Cup three times and the European Champions Cup. They won all three crowns in 1999, known as a prestigious "treble" — which had never been done. Lastly, the company recruited marketing maven Edward Freedman from London-based club Tottenham Hotspur.

Manchester United became one of the most exciting teams in the world, with television constantly broadcasting its games in the United Kingdom and throughout Asia and Australia. Revenues began to soar. The first year of the BSkyB television contract in 1993, United's revenues were about two-thirds that of Tottenham's. By 1997, Manchester's revenues were more than three times Tottenham's.

"United's trick was to get its timing dead right," said Mihir Bose, a London journalist and author of "Manchester Unlimited," which chronicles United's past decade of success. "They got a merchandising genius and combined their success on the field with wider changes in the soccer industry. That meant their success could be shown to a much wider audience than had ever been seen before. ... It's an amazing dominance."

By any stretch, it's extremely well managed and profitable, with operating profits three times greater than the next richest club (Liverpool) in the Premier League, according to Deloitte & Touche's annual review of English team finances. United has virtually no debt, sells out every home game and owns its stadium.

Man U's American Tour
Date Opponent Site
July 22 Glasgow Celtic Seahawks Stadium
July 27 Club America (Mexico) Los Angeles
July 31 Juventus (Italy) E. Rutherford, N.J.
Aug. 3 Barcelona Philadelphia
Source: Washington Post
Sport's rich and famous
Manchester United is worth more than even the most valuable teams in the major U.S. pro sports leagues. (Figures are approximate; in millions of U.S. dollars.)
Team (Sport) Revenue Franchise value
Manchester United (soccer) $200 million $1 billion
N.Y. Yankees (MLB) $242 million $850 million
Washington Redskins (NFL) $204 million $845 million
Dallas Cowboys (NFL) $189 million $784 million
Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) $144 million $403 million
Chicago Bulls (NBA) $117 million $329 million
Detroit Red Wings (NHL) $114 million $266 million
Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL) $112 million $216 million
Sources: Manchester United annual report, Forbes magazine
Premier League
The standings (as of Thursday) of England's Premier League:
W L T Pts.
Manchester United 23 5 8 77
Arsenal 21 5 9 72
Newcastle 20 11 5 65
Chelsea 18 8 10 64
Liverpool 18 8 10 64
Everton 17 11 8 59
Blackburn 15 10 11 56
Tottenham 14 14 8 50
Charlton 14 15 7 49
Southampton 12 11 12 48
Manchester City 14 16 6 48
Birmingham City 13 15 8 47
Middlesbrough 12 14 10 46
Aston Villa 11 16 9 42
Fulham 11 16 9 42
Leeds United 12 19 5 41
Bolton 9 14 13 40
West Ham 9 16 11 38
West Brom 6 24 6 24
Sunderland 4 25 7 19

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