May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Manchester United, the record 19-time English soccer champion, said it now has 659 million followers, making it the world’s “most popular club.”
The figures are based on a study carried out for the team last year by market research company Kantar: 54,000 people in 39 countries were asked which team -- or teams -- they followed.
“Our followers have doubled in five years,” United’s commercial director Richard Arnold told reporters in London today. “It’s important to the club, not only for commercial partnerships: It gives us a road map to understand exactly what’s going on.”
Even after the reported increase in support, the team managed by Alex Ferguson finished trophy-less this year for the first time since 2005. It was eliminated in the group stage of the Champions League and lost its Premier League crown on the last day of the season to Manchester City. The report was carried out last year when United won the league and reached the Champions League final where it was beaten by Barcelona, the second most-popular team according to Kantar’s research.
“It’s one of the huge myths that fans are fickle,” Arnold said. “Research by Barclays globally showed that 85 percent never change the team they support. Think of that in terms of the divorce rate. It changes less often than who you are married to.”
United is traveling to China to play two exhibition matches this off-season. Arnold said sponsors will be able to gauge the interest in the team there because of the way the players get mobbed is akin to the “Beatles effect.”
The survey claimed United has 108 million supporters in China, where 150 million people can watch Premier League soccer. Still, Pierre Justo, Asia director of sport and media for data company TNS/CSM Media Research, said in an interview that the English game trails China’s domestic soccer competition and basketball in terms of viewership.
Arnold said an announcement of the Premier League’s next television rights contract is “imminent.”
Earlier this month, United said fiscal third-quarter profit to March 31 fell 8.5 percent on declines in media and matchday income, even as commercial income grew 15 percent over the year-earlier period. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization declined to 20.4 million pounds ($32 million).
United has a jersey sponsorship deal with Aon Corp. worth 80 million pounds, and partnerships with businesses including delivery company DHL, Malaysian chip brand Mr. Potato and imaging company Epson. An agreement with a car partner to replace Audi is expected soon.
The DHL contract, worth 40 million pounds, is the first of its kind, where the sponsor of training-wear is different to the that of the main jersey. Arnold said the sales of the DHL shirt make it soccer’s fourth-most popular branded soccer jersey.
“The sheer size of our fanbase allows us to carve out rights that are not relevant to other teams,” he said.
United has yet to decide whether it will extend its contract with Nike Inc., the U.S. company that manufactures and sells its jerseys. That contract was signed in 2002 for 13 years. Arnold declined to say whether Nike will be retained, though he acknowledged the team’s next deal is unlikely to cover so many years.
“Generally most contracts we sign these days are shorter,” he said.
The team’s disappointments on the field this season haven’t affected the amount sponsors pay because United never agrees to performance-related clauses, Arnold added.
Plans by the U.S.-based Glazer family, the team’s owners, to float as much as 30 percent of the team in an initial public offering in Singapore remain on hold. The Glazers, who bought United in 2005, remain unpopular with many fans for using the club’s income to finance their 790 million-pound acquisition. United had debt of 423.3 million pounds in the third quarter.
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