Photo: Manchester United
In filings for its IPO with the SEC, Manchester United admits is does NOT have 659 million fans, a claim upon which General Motors recently struck a $559 million sponsorship deal. The deal has been so controversial within GM that its chief marketer, Joel Ewanick, was ousted from the company after striking it. The sum of money involved was so large, he was accused by an internal whistleblower of trying to hide it by splitting the money across several different GM budgets.The GM-United deal, which will put the Chevrolet logo on the team shirt from the 2014/15 season through 2020/21, is among the largest that has ever been struck in soccer. At the time it was made, Paul Edwards, GM’s executive director of global marketing strategy, explained that United’s 600 million-plus fanbase was a key factor. He said:
When Manchester United played against Manchester City, “that audience around the world scaled to 600 million people,” Mr. Edwards said. “Compare that to the Super Bowl here in the States, which is roughly 110, 115 million, and you’re talking five times that audience watching one regular-season game. It’s significant.”
United’s commercial director, Richard Arnold, cited the 659 million number in his announcement of the GM sponsorship:
We have been partners with Chevrolet for only six weeks, but already they have produced some fantastic ideas that will benefit both the partnership and our 659 million followers around the world.
In its F-1 filing, however, United explains how it calculates the 659 million number, which has been bandied around in the media without qualification for several months. It turns out that the number was “extrapolated” from an internet survey of 53,000 people. And United’s definition of a “follower” of the club is a loose one, It includes “a respondent who either watched live Manchester United matches, followed highlights coverage or read or talked about Manchester United regularly.” (Such a definition would include fans of Liverpool, like me, who hate United but love to watch the club lose to other teams.)
The number was calculated by Kantar, a media research group. United admits that even on Kantar’s extrapolation, only a minority of the 659 million are actual fans of the club:
This internet-based survey identified Manchester United as a supported team of 659 million followers (and the favourite football team of 277 million of those followers) and was based on 53,287 respondents from 39 countries around the world.
At best, in other words, United fans number “only” 277 million.
But hold that thought … elsewhere in the F-1, United describes the number of people who have either bought a piece of United merchandise, such as a shirt, or who have liked its Facebook page. Here are those numbers:
- Merch buyers: 5 million
- Facebook fans: 26.5 million
A “fan,” of course, is useless to a club unless she spends money on its products or outwardly advertises her loyalty. Based on United’s own numbers it seems much more reasonable to agree that United’s Red Army numbers between 5 million and 26 million globally.
That’s about 4%, or less, of the number GM based its deal on at the time.
You can read United’s methodology for counting fans on page ii of this document.
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