The Denver and Manchester areas are both home to about 2.6 million people. But when Manchester United lines up Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High to make its first appearance in the Mile High City, remember this: When it comes to worldwide popularity, the Broncos aren’t in the same ballpark.
And it’s not that the Broncos are hurting for attention. They have more than 3 million Facebook likes. But Manchester United has 50 million more than Denver’s NFL team. An international survey in 2012 found that Manchester United had 659 million supporters worldwide, making the powerhouse soccer team the “world’s most popular club.”
Forbes recently ranked the Broncos the 25th most valuable team in all of professional sports. Manchester United came in at No. 3.
So how does a club from a city about the size as Denver achieve such global domination? Well, soccer is the most popular sport in the world. And if you ask midfielder Darren Fletcher, it’s the history of Manchester United, founded in 1878, that accounts for the club’s popularity.
On Feb. 6, 1958, a British European Airways plane carrying 44 people, including Manchester United, crashed into a village in Munich on its third attempt to take off during a snowstorm. Twenty-three people were killed, including eight players, three club officials and eight journalists.
“English soccer suffered the worst disaster in its history at Munich yesterday,” wrote John Camkin of the London News Chronicle on Feb. 7, 1958. “Manchester United … must inevitably cease to exist as an effective unit for some time.”
But by 1965, Man United had regained its standing as the best soccer club in the English Premier League. Man United has won 15 of its 20 Premier League titles since that dark day in Munich.
“Instead of buying new players, (the club) brought in all their young players, and went on to win a lot of trophies,” said Fletcher, the captain of Scotland’s national team. “When you have something like that in your history, people take a keen interest in it and realize they came through and are still so successful after such adversity.”
While a storied past certainly plays a role, Brian Kitts, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver who teaches sports and entertainment marketing, credits “audacious creativity” in Man United’s marketing.
“When you look at a team like Manchester United, they’re in a relatively modest-sized city in the U.K.,” Kitts said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t act like they want to own the world, and so they do.”
Kitts said that in the early 2000s, the club laid out its goals to dominate not just Manchester and the United Kingdom, but also Asia, northern Africa, the United States and Latin America.
“The ambition, the scope and the planning are just jaw-dropping,” Kitts said.
As far as revenue streams go, Kitts said American sports teams tend to look at ticket sales and TV deals, with sponsorship money coming in somewhere after that. But, he said, American teams are somewhat reined in by their respective leagues — something the large European soccer clubs don’t have holding them back.
“When you let Manchester United or Real Madrid run wild, you get some pretty cool results,” Kitts said.
In 2012, Manchester United struck a sponsorship deal with General Motors worth $559 million over seven years to put a Chevrolet logo on the front of the players’ jerseys beginning this season. This month, Man United signed an unprecedented 10-year, $1.3 billion sponsorship contract with Adidas.
“Did Chevy buy in because they thought that they could do a deal in a city of about 3 million people? No, it turns out, Manchester United has already staked its claim in China and that’s where GM needs to sell cars,” Kitts said.
Manchester United also offers a white label Internet service that provides fans free access, but gives the team multiple brand interactions each day, Kitts said.
“Their website is available in seven languages,” Kitts said. “And it’s not just local or regional. It’s Arabic, it’s Chinese, Korean.”
The Colorado Red Devils, a group of about 70 fans based at the British Bulldog bar in Denver, will be hosting other Man United fan groups from California, Dallas, Philadelphia and Atlanta.