Manchester United’s fortunes on the soccer pitch may have been mixed since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager back in 2013, but the club’s performance away from the field has been stellar during the same period.
Chief Executive Ed Woodward was appointed in the same summer, with revenues since rising to $737 million, while the club is now valued at $4.8 billion. These figures are enough for Forbes to rank Manchester United the most valuable soccer team in the world.
Continuing this commercial momentum is reliant on two key elements. The first is having a successful team that can win prize money, secure more attention from broadcasters and attract star players. The second is maintaining and growing the fan base.
Soccer’s digital battle
Succeeding in the first part of that strategy contributes significantly to the latter, but as soccer becomes more globalized, fan engagement is essential. Part of United’s success can be attributed to not just signing blockbuster shirt sponsorship deals but also more specific arrangements covering individual industries ranging from noodles to tractors.
More supporters mean more lucrative sponsorship deals and more commercial opportunities. And that’s why soccer clubs are increasingly battling it out in the digital arena as well as in the stadium.
Last year Real Madrid and Barcelona have competed in the ‘Digital Clasico’ to become the first soccer club to attract 100 million likes on their official Facebook pages, while Manchester City has invested significantly in its content and digital operations.
Manchester United is no different, having spent three years creating a robust digital platform with the help of HCL that extends across all parts of the business. Essentially, it allows the club to reach out to supporters on a more detailed basis and can scale up during special events such as match days.
The club estimates it has 659 million followers around the world, and the platform gives it a single view of fans across multiple touchpoints such as ticketing, e-commerce, events and experiences such as the official museum and tour.
Most recently it was used to launch the new official website and the club’s first official mobile application, which it hopes will increase fan engagement. With days of the app’s launch, it was the most downloaded sports app in 68 countries and was the most downloaded in any category in the UK on launch day.
The club’s digital operations are headed up by American Phil Lynch, who joined in January 2017 after running global partnerships at Yahoo and spending eight years at Sony Pictures working on digital experiences.
He tells me that although he hasn’t worked directly in sports before joining United, he worked with the NFL, NHL and MLB at Yahoo Sports and has “always” been a United fan.
The digital chief
“My remit is everything digital, [whether that’s] our website, our social platforms, photography or matchday accreditation,” he says. “We have a 24-7 linear TV network called MUTV and we have an editorial staff that creates content for online, our matchday programme and monthly magazine. That’s about 80 people, a large proportion of which are focused on MUTV, which is in 35 million homes [on a linear basis].
“The mandate for me is to continue to [grow] reach and engagement. It’s also about diversifying the fanbase and that enhances club-wise initiatives. The more we know about our users, the more content and merchandise we can [offer] them. The more knowledge we have the more we can grow the business.”
If a supporter chooses to consume content from an official club channel rather than a third party, such as a newspaper or website, then the club gains more information about the supporter.
One thing that differs from U.S. sports leagues is that Premier League clubs have greater control over their media rights. While centralized deals covering live matches and immediate highlights are an important source of revenue, clubs have much more freedom with what they do with this content 48 hours after a match.
Followers, not adopters
MUTV launched in 1998 but has traditionally been reliant on carriage deals with broadcasters such as Sky to reach fans. It has now launched a direct-to-consumer service on iOS, Android, Xbox and Amazon Fire, while its YouTube channel was the first sports-related service to reach one million subscribers.
Yet despite this success, United has never been an early adopter. Manchester United was one of the last Premier League clubs to get an official Twitter account in 2013, while other clubs have had an official app for some time.
It’s somewhat ironic that the club’s (and star Player Paul Pogba’s) sponsor Adidas launched a marketing campaign revolving around the ‘First Never Follows’ strapline, yet United itself chooses to be a follower. Lynch argues this approach allows it to refine its approach and be the best.
“One of the things that’s most interesting about Manchester United … is we are very rarely first, but when we do [launch], we do it in a big way,” he explains. “We’re not always the first to the party, but when we do we’re the best dressed.
“We were on Instagram TV on the day of launch and we were one of the sports clubs on there, if not the first. That’s one of the reasons I was brought on was to leverage my relationship with some of the biggest platforms in the U.S. – we know what products are coming.”
United as a business
Lynch believes this shows sports organizations are increasingly becoming media companies and that its online platform is constantly evolving. Partner HCL gives United bi-weekly updates and product enhancements and is helping United achieve greater levels of personalization.
For example, if they can see one supporter looks at content related to Paul Pogba more often, then the club can feed that users more Pogba video and editorial across all platforms. Although traditionalists would wince at the suggestion that sport is no different to other industries, HCL argues that Digital Transformation is just as relevant to a soccer club.
“Everybody [at HCL] gets passionate about the football [aspect] of Manchester United, but at the end of the day, it’s a business like anyone else,” argues HCL’s Ashish Gupta. “It’s more out there in the public eye, but the same set of challenges as any company.”
“When you have a large heritage to move to a digital world, it’s a tough process. But the amount of time and effort … was very similar to any other enterprise customer. There are benefits of working with United, but at the core, it’s a business.”
The rise of online streaming is one of the biggest topics of conversation within the sporting world at present. DAZN and Eleven Sports are among those to launch dedicated services around the world, bypassing traditional broadcast platforms, but everyone is waiting to see how interested the likes of Amazon and Facebook are in premium live sports content.
The tech giants have so far taken baby steps into the market, with the most noteworthy development being Amazon gaining the rights to 20 live and exclusive Premier League matches from the 2019-20 season.
However, the proposed expansion of the FIFA Club World Cup would see broadcast rights sold to online streaming services – a move which saw Woodward himself reportedly declare that “Streaming is the future of football coverage.” If Lynch increasingly sees sports organizations as media companies, does he agree with that sentiment?“I can’t comment on the [Premier League] side, but you’ll see the likes of Amazon and Facebook interested in all sports. From a club perspective, I do agree with that 100% and that’s why we’re putting such a focus on MUTV.
“The average age of a linear MUTV [subscriber] is 54 and the average age of our B2C app is 30 so you can see this is a generation of cord cutters.”