The big news in the soccer world this week is the General Motors sponsorship of commercial behemoth Manchester United. The mud has been flying (off the pitch, not on it), and GM have busily parlayed accusations of favoring European sponsorships into grand "global" statements following the announcement in Shanghai. GM is the world's largest automobile producer, and United are often referred to as the biggest football club in the world. When these titans decided to jump into bed together, there had to be an ulterior motive beyond the obvious. And there was: China.
GM's Chief Marketing Officer, Joe Ewanick, said in a statement, "More than 3.5 billion people follow soccer and only about 400 million people follow the NFL. We have to go where the our customers are." Kind of a strange statement, given that GM are an automaker, not an NFL or a soccer team. Or is it? Both United and GM are in the process of grabbing a huge market share of the Asian economic giant. It makes sense they'd team up and benefit from the synergy this produces. The disturbing aspect though is that an American and a British brand are investing so heavily in a country that is half a world away, and whose soccer fans clearly won't be attending any Man United games at Old Trafford anytime soon. But they will be driving Chevies. And they love Manchester United.
When GM withdrew their Facebook ad campaign just days before the much-touted Facebook IPO, tongues wagged. Then the Mad Men from the RenCen announced they'd be dropping their ad space for next year's Superbowl, and people really began to wonder. Perhaps Clint Eastwood's aimless rambling this year in GM competitor Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ad convinced them of the pointlessness of Superbowl ads. Especially when weighed against the value of a pioneering brand push in a region that has lots of growing room. A Manchester United spokesman referred to the club's "108 million followers" in China and said that the alliance was a "powerful mix". He didn't mention that United will be playing two exhibition matches in China, and that the tour will be called the "Chevrolet China Cup". He also neglected to reveal the source of information for the size of United's fan base in China, and indeed the world. The figure associated with this latter phenomenon being bandied about the Web as 659 million...hmmmm, how could they know that, and did this huge estimate help seal the deal? Either way, it looks like this little venture has been planned for a while.
Americans have long used their country's geographic scale to belittle other nations, particularly England. But those days are over. GM has rinsed the American consumer so many times with its products they have a guaranteed market domestically. The people who were once its only concern must now watch as the automaker leaves "football" behind for Football. (As in a game in which men use their feet to propel a spherical object i.e. a ball). The standing joke among Americans - whose own sports tend to involve an array of expensive equipment, usually for protection - is that all you need to play soccer is "a ball and a two coats for a goal". Well...in other news, General Motors are partnering with the "One World Futbol Project" - a company whose goal is to manufacture innumerable almost indestructible soccer balls and distribute them to the youth of impoverished countries. GM will donate 1.5 million of these indestructible balls, which may or may not feature the carmaker's logo.
When Manchester United announced a huge merchandising partnership with the New York Yankees in 2001, many Americans were shocked to learn the English club's worth estimated at around five times that of the Yankees. Those numbers have since been manipulated and juggled in one club's favor or the other, but this time there's no such pettiness. GM and United are clear market share leaders in China and once Chevy dealerships begin displaying the United crest globally it presumably means United's "659 million fans'" heads will all turn at once. The Chevy bow-tie logo will also be featured on the scoreboards, bench seats and interview backdrops at United's Old Trafford stadium. Given that United's televised games outrank the Superbowl, with their more important matches viewed by over three times the average Superbowl figure (350 million against 100 million), means the two brands will become synonymous at a time when media, communications, social and search are all converging.
One thing is puzzling a lot of die-hard English United fans though; does the club really have 659 million fans, and if so where are they taking this figure from? Expect silence on that one.