The Red Planet: How Manchester United conquered the world

Manchester United is now the richest football club in the world, according to the latest annual list published by Forbes. Replacing Real Madrid at the top of the money list, United is now valued at a whopping £2.86 billion. The club currently has 72 million followers on Facebook, 18 million on Instagram and 11 million on Twitter. A survey in 2012 by market research company Kanter estimated the Old Trafford outfit has 650 million supporters worldwide – almost 10% of the global population at the time. So how did the club transform itself from a local football team from Manchester to the global behemoth that it is today?

The club was originally founded as Newton Heath LYR Football Club in 1878. Formed by the Carriage and Wagon Department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR), the team initially played games against other departments and railway companies. After being served with a winding-up order in 1902, the club was saved by four local businessmen who each invested £500. They also changed its name to the now famous Manchester United.

There was some success in the early years before the Busby Babes swept all before them to become League Champions in 1956 and 1957. But the name Manchester United was still relatively unknown outside of England until the tragic events of the 6th February 1958. The Munich Air Disaster, in which 23 players, club officials and journalists lost their lives when the plane they had planned to return home in following a European Cup quarter-final success against Red Star Belgrade, caught the world’s attention. Overcoming the shattering loss of so many brilliant young footballers, the team was rebuilt under the tutelage of Sir Matt Busby, culminating in victory in the European Cup Final just a decade later. It was the moment in time that Manchester United moved from being a local team and established itself in the hearts and minds of people the world over. As tragic as the events were, it is a piece of history that has helped to give rise to the allure and mystic of the club. A piece of history that still draws people in. It is the classic story of rising from the ashes to claim a glorious victory that no other club can tell.

But a tragic history is not enough to become one of the most supported football teams in the world. To achieve that you need to consistently win trophies and to entertain people along the way. Players such as Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, and Denis Law led the way post-Munich with domestic and European victories in the 1960’s. Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering reign finally returned glory after a 26 year wait for the next League title. By the time he had retired he had amassed 13 Premier League titles, two UEFA Champions League trophies, five FA Cups and countless other trophies to make Manchester United the most successful club in the history of English football. His flair players such as Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, to name just a few, carried on the traditions of bringing excitement to the watching crowds, whether they be at Old Trafford or on television.

And so to the importance of television to the global expansion of Manchester United and the English Premier League as a whole. Today viewers can tune in from over 200 territories worldwide, with an average of 12 million people watching each Premier League game. The League as a whole boasts incredible popularity, with football lovers attracted by the pace of the English game, a tradition for attacking football and a demand from home-grown supporters that their players display full-blooded commitment to the cause. The history of Manchester United and the success the club has enjoyed as the League has expanded its global tentacles, has ensured it has remained at the forefront of the worldwide push and established itself as the most supported English club in the world.

Being a die-hard United fan living outside of England, in my case, Australia brings its own set of demands. It means regularly setting the alarm anywhere between midnight and 5 am to watch a game, often twice a week, and then struggling through the following day on three or four hours sleep. After a good win adrenalin helps to keep you going for most of the day. The days after a loss are always much more difficult. It’s a ritual I have kept for over 28 years. Prior to live televised games, people such as myself were confined to listening to BBC Sport on a shortwave radio, listening to updates and interview on all manner of English sports from darts to rowing, just barely fighting off sleep while waiting for the Broadcaster to break from a report with the words “there’s been a goal at Old Trafford…” I have had more people than I care to remember tell me that I must be mad to put up with the lack of sleep to support a team that plays half a world away. But I know this devotion to United is not rare. It’s just part of the territory when you are a United fan living outside of England.

Those in charge of the purse strings at United have certainly pushed the global expansion. In the simplest of terms, more supporters mean more money. It’s the reason most clubs now go on pre-season tours to destinations such as the United States of America and Asia, often against the wishes of the manager. Official game day screenings, hosted by former players now enlisted as club ambassadors, have been held by the club in destinations such as New Delhi, Bangkok, and New York. Marketing strategies are aimed at attracting a global audience in the hope of increasing the sales of United shirts, merchandise, and television viewership. The world biggest companies have also latched themselves to United, paying huge sums of money for the right to call themselves official sponsors of Manchester United.

The financial benefits of the global expansion are obvious. Being the world’s richest club gives you an advantage beyond all others in the transfer market, as evidenced by the world record signing of Paul Pogba last year. When news broke in the last few days of Cristiano Ronaldo looking to leave Real Madrid, United were among a very small group of clubs who could even think about signing him. The huge profits being made simply must be reinvested in order to keep United in the running for winning trophies, and in doing so keep pushing the global growth.

But what about the impact of the ‘tourist fan’ on the atmosphere on game day? Those that either aren’t familiar enough with the traditional songs and chants to join in with the local supporters or those, like myself on my first visit to Old Trafford, who spend at least part of the game sitting in silent awe, taking it all in. It must have been obvious enough to the gentleman sitting behind me, as he put his hand on my shoulder and simply said; ‘First time at Old Trafford?’ There is no question there is a difference in the atmosphere provided by a local fan as opposed to one who has flown in for the game. Mind you, the tourist fan is also more likely to spend a small fortune at the club’s Megastore as well, further filling the clubs coffers. There are drawbacks in diluting the local fan base. But the benefit to the local fan is in the revenue the club earns from their international comrades and the ability this gives the club to attract the world best players.

I would like to think that, despite the negative spin some try to put on it, it is still a source of pride to Manchester based fans that their hometown club is known and loved the world over. That they live in a city that holds an almost mystical power to people from all continents of the world. That their city is one that people dream about one day coming to visit.

It has been a remarkable evolution from a team of local railway workers to where the club stands today. You have to wonder what those original players would have thought of it all.

Written by Sean Cortis


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