It’s a good time to be a Chicago Cubs fan. Last weekend, I joined the ranks of Cubs supporters celebrating our team’s first trip to the World Series in 70 years — and, hopefully, our first title since 1908. As the cheers and fireworks filled Chicagoland, it got me thinking about another sports team with a long and unique history. They call themselves the “No. 1 club in the world” — and they aren’t exaggerating. They’re 659 million fans strong, with more retweets than Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama combined.
The Cubs might be Chicago’s team, but in many ways, the 138-year-old Manchester United Football Club is the whole world’s home team.
So what makes a team as beloved and successful as these two? How does a team become a national — or, for Manchester United, an international — phenomenon? Sure, the teams’ winning records and star players don’t hurt, but the main reason can be summed up in two words: sales and marketing.
I recently heard Tom Hill, Manchester United’s head of partnerships and operations, give the keynote talk at a meeting of Chicago’s Business Marketing Association chapter. Tom’s talk put the team’s sales and marketing operations into context, and I was blown away by the club’s success. Manchester United connects with 85% of its fans outside the United Kingdom. For perspective, the NFL reaches only 7% of its fans outside the United States.
It’s no surprise that 60 corporate brands currently partner with the team. When the team’s average game audience is 50 million — delivering the media equivalent of the Super Bowl every week — the attraction is pretty easy to understand.
Part of Manchester United’s success is thanks to their ever-evolving sales and marketing strategy. In the past, the club’s revenue came from three relatively equal sources: one-third each from broadcasting, ticket sales and commercial sponsorships. Today, partnerships represent over half the club’s revenue, forming its biggest area of growth. Retail and merchandising follow naturally.
If you didn’t catch the language shift from “sponsorship” to “partnership,” let me pause there for a minute. According to Tom, it’s a major factor in the team’s massive growth over recent years.
The club attributes the success of its marketing platform to four categories:
- High brand affinity
- Global reach and media visibility
- Unique access to players and venue
- Incredible marketing support and global activations
That’s a proactive formula that marketers on and off the field can learn from. It starts with using the correct word: partnership, not sponsorship.
Those partnerships can’t be one-size-fits-all. Manchester United develops customized engagement strategies with each partner to ensure that the relationship is successful. But that’s a two-way street, of course. Brands can’t just sign up for a partnership and sit on it. They have to activate and pull their weight.
Manchester United is committed to engaging brands’ stakeholders through multifaceted marketing programs. They put in the effort to get these programs off the ground, setting joint objectives for both the club and the partner brand. And both parties work together to create credible and authentic engagement, build relationships, and develop flexible strategies. Some partners even end up doing business with each other!
Tom didn’t share the exact revenue numbers that Man U’s partner brands generate. But he did say there’s one reason they keep coming back for more: “because it works.” And by “it works,” he means it delivers real business impact — exactly what any partner is looking for.
Back on the home front, the Cubs have also recognized the power of marketing to shape their team’s narrative. Transforming a team from “lovable losers” to World Series contenders takes more than smart player acquisitions and great coaching. It takes an understanding of their audience, effective marketing spending, and a brand narrative that resonates with both players and fans. If the team combines those three elements and gives fans a reason to believe, those fans will stick by their team, win or lose, year after year — hoping that, this time, they’ll come out on top.
The power of sports marketing is often overlooked in an age of virtual and digital engagement, but in the end, the feeling a fan gets experiencing a win is universal, whether it’s the Champions League or the World Series. And every team’s fans will tell you theirs is the No. 1 sports team in the world. What brand wouldn’t want to tap into that energy?
(P.S. Thanks to Ink Factory Studio for creating this blog’s stunning graphic!)