Global Ambition, Local Dissatisfaction | Man Utd
Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, football has changed beyond recognition. From being firmly a local institution, clubs are actively expanding beyond their home towns into new domestic and more importantly foreign markets.
We recently looked at how clubs have modified their crests to transition into the new global and digital game and this article is really a wider continuation of that. We'll be focusing specifically on Man Utd, the pioneers in global expansion and how their success has come at a cost locally.
Man United boast over 150 million fans worldwide, spanning from Australia to USA, China to the Middle East. Their aggressive international expansion, which coincided with the rise of the Premier League, Beckham-mania, access to cable TV and of course on the field success fuelled a boom in support for the Red Devils.
This dramatic rise has unfortunately come at a cost to the club’s local supporters. It's no longer a place where working-class fans can enjoy football at an affordable price but now a venue where middle-class and overseas fans consume entertainment.
Whilst it's now the norm to see large clubs like Liverpool or Barcelona head around the world for their annual summer tour, Man Utd were one of the first on the scene, touring Asia in the 90s in a successful attempt to lure in the new wave of Asian fans. The club also opened retail shops in the Middle East and even licenced branded mopeds in Thailand. Next they removed the words 'football club' from its badge, signifying a move away from its local roots to a more global brand. The move didn't go down too well with fans, who expressed their anger at the time.
The rapid commercialisation of the club has without a doubt been a huge success, with the club continuously finding itself in the top three of the annual Deloitte Football Money League. Revenues are up to $627.1m during the 2018-19 season and continue to rise (even with a lack of recent field success and Champions League appearances).
The changing faces in ownership is a great example of how the club has moved on from its origins. It went from being owned by a local well respected businessmen like James Gibson at Man Utd in ‘30s and Louis Edwards (who's son Martin Edwards then became chairman after his death in 1980) to American businessman and sports owner Malcolm Glazer.
The arrival of the Glazers was met with widespread criticism, as the club has effective been bought not with the their money but with the debt they had raised against the club they were buying. In an instant the club were in debt to the tune of hundreds of millions.
Fans tried to prevent a total takeover by buying 17% of the clubs shared but this strategy failed and the protests continued, symbolically shown at the time with fans wearing the green and gold scarves of Newton Heath, who changed their name to Manchester United in 1902.
Disgruntled with the arrival of the Glazers back in 2005, 400 United fans decided to split and form a new club named FC United in the amateur leagues. This was an attempt to re-identify their attachment to their local club. ‘In the eyes of many FC fans, Manchester United has become ‘dis-united’ from Manchester'. Among FC’s primary aims is to become involved in local community sport and other forms of social assistance, directly addressing the lack of social responsibility by Manchester United and the state.
The non-league side is managed by eleven individuals who were democratically voted in by its 5,000 strong members. From the team kits to ticket prices, fans are directly involved in the day to day running of the club.
In a complete contrast to the multi million pound shirt deal with Chevrolet (which I think we can all agree the logo looks awful and ridiculously large), FC United made a conscious decision not to have a shirt sponsor, giving the modern game two middle fingers. This hasn't stopped them propelling up the divisions and in 2015 the club took a bold step forward with the unveiling of their new 4,000 capacity stadium Broadhurst Park.
The change from a local working class to an international middle class fan base has produced a drop in the quality of the match day and of the overall experience of the game. It's not just specific to United but the vast majority of major European clubs. The match experience now focuses on business packages, high quality cuisine and luxury VIP enclosures, suppressing the passionate local supporters from the game and as thus, affecting the quality of the atmosphere and generally destroying the soul and culture of the game.
A growing wave of tourist fans rock up to Old Trafford come matchday, which for many will be a bittersweet experience. These day trippers add to the club coffers and become somewhat of a brand ambassador as they return home. On the flip side, too many in the crowd have the capacity to dilute the experience, with tourist fans incapable of creating atmosphere and appear more concerned with selfies and photos. Yes, I've made quite a sweeping statement there but having been to many grounds (as a tourist fan myself), I know first hand what happens in the majority of cases.
High ticket demand, especially from overseas, also has the potential to drive up prices, which can only have a negative effect on the local more working class supporters. This is certainly not just a Man Utd issue, with clubs like Juventus fiercely criticked by its hardcore supporters over rising prices. The arrival of ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo drove up prices almost overnight by 30% and tourist fans turned up in their droves to witness the ageing star.
Global growth has a natural consequence, alienation of the original local support. It's an all too common by-product of the modern game.
High ticket prices, unloved foreign owners and a diluted matchday experience are some of the many reasons leading to resentment and delusion from local supporters.
It's fair to say Man United are not the only club guilty of this trend, with fans of elite sides such as Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich facing similar accusations. The difference here is simply that Man United were the trendsetters that paved the way for this type of elite modern football club.
Written by Richard Tester