Red Devils’ American conquest

LONDON: When it comes to seizing the moment, few football clubs are better at it than Manchester United. Very few companies are brasher at it than Nike. 

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - a time of specific remembrance – the club and the shoe company choose to call a media conference in New York to sell their wares. 

Summoning the journalists, ChampionsWorld, the consulting firm that arranged the press call, stated: “Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of English Premier League Champions Manchester United, and ChampionsWorld will make an announcement at Niketown in New York City on Tuesday, Nov 11 at 11:00 a.m.  

“Following the announcement, the Manchester United manager and Charlie Stillitano will be available for interviews.” 

What could it mean, this “announcement” that coincides with the hour on which the World War I armistice went into effect 85 years ago?  

What had soccer to trumpet at a time that many reserve for Armistice Day silence, and Americans now call Veterans' Day? 

It means they are selling something. It means that United, which a year ago made its first US tour since 1982, is going back there next summer.  

Even with Concorde grounded, Sir Alex was flown in by Nike from Manchester to Manhattan to personalise the announcement. 

Nike is one of the sponsors making United the richest club in the world. America is the unconquered market for pro soccer. And $349 million – the amount Nike started to pay United over a 13-year partnership starting last August – gives the sponsor rights to get its message across. 

Why Tuesday, why that particular day at that particular hour, and especially on this particular year when the fallout of war is all around us? Because, say the marketing men, this was the most convenient time to get Alex Ferguson. 

He has a free week while his players are scattered across various fields on duty with their national teams, some of them in Euro 2004 playoff games this weekend, some further afield in South America where World Cup 2006 qualifying matches are already taking place. 

Not that this is an idle week for Sir Alex. He is tying up another new contract, reported to be around £4mil a year, or US$6.66mil, for three years, which will take his tenure at Manchester to 21 years.  

He is also a wanted man. The Football Association in London had set Tuesday for his reply to the FA's demand for an explanation as to why he appeared to impugn the ruling body's integrity last month.  

Sir Alex had been fined and banished from the touchline for two games for abusive language to a referee.  

He had later accused the FA of “doing a deal” with Arsenal, his own club's great rival, suggesting that punishments for Arsenal players brawling against United were too lenient. Presumably, in the air or on the ground in New York, Sir Alex found a moment or two to compose an answer to meet his deadline. 

Meanwhile, he was on a mission. Two years ago, when Ferguson approached his 60th birthday, he announced that he was retiring from the cut and thrust of soccer management. One option open to him was to travel the globe as a Nike emissary. 

He backed off retirement, maintained the compulsion to manage his team, got rid of David Beckham and started rebuilding the new United squad.  

The Beckham transfer to Real Madrid had many reasons – not least Sir Alex's disapproval of the lifestyle of Mr and Mrs Beckham and their courting of world acclaim. 

Down the list of considerations, but not off it, was that United planned to break into the markets of the Americas.  

Nike is smoothing that, and when last summer's tour was arranged, the question of Beckham and his Adidas sponsorship lurked in the background. In the nick of time, Beckham was sold to a club whose own major sponsor happens to be Adidas. 

Meantime, the Americanisation of United was being forged in other directions. When a marketing deal was signed between the English club and YankeeNets, a US sporting holding company, another United knight, Sir Bobby Charlton, took exception to a journalist's question. 

“We are not,” Charlton insisted, “going into this to make money. We are not in the process of selling our souls to another sport.” The selling of souls? Well, maybe not to another sport. 

United has been selling shares across the globe for many years. The public listing of the club started in 1991, and right now there is speculation that some of the major shareholders abroad are mounting a full take over bid. 

John Paul (JP) McManus and John Magnier, Irish racehorse tycoons and one-time very close friends of Ferguson, have built a 23 percent stake in United without ever stating their intentions or their love of soccer.  

John de Mol, a Dutch television mogul who created the Big Brother series, has 4 percent. 

But if there is a takeover merchant, a man who might seriously buy out the rest, the finger points to Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  

Followers of the Bucs will tell you that nobody knows what Glazer will do until he closes out the deal. He could be acquiring shares in United because it's the best-known soccer club on the planet.  

He could be hoping to sell out at a profit. Or he could be the one who covets the whole club, and the undeveloped potential it has to stimulate a US fan base and to penetrate the Latin American market. 

Back in Asia, United's “Red Devil” brand is under sustained attack by Real Madrid. In Britain, Peter Kenyon, the man who marketed United in the East, has defected to Chelsea and its new owner, Roman Abramovich. 

Time to move on. And no time, obviously, is immune from the selling. – IHT 

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