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Inside the Man United Machine

The storied English football club has turned itself into the most valuable brand in sports. Here’s how

In December of 2009 an unexpected package arrived at the headquarters of Concha y Toro, the 127-year-old winemaker in Santiago, Chile. Inside was an ornate box lined with black silk and holding a leather football. The Concha y Toro insignia was stenciled on the ball, next to that of the sender’s: Manchester United. Accompanying the gift was a book explaining the financial benefits of a partnership between the football club and the winemaker. Within 36 hours, United executives were on the phone with their counterparts at Concha y Toro, working on the outlines of a deal that was signed on May 17, 2010. An official ceremony was held four months later at Old Trafford, Man U’s stadium, where the club introduced the Chilean company as its first global wine partner. Under the arrangement, luxury boxes and lounges in Old Trafford serve only Concha y Toro’s Casillero del Diablo wines and the company’s ads appear on the digital “billboards” seen on broadcasts of United home games.

The courting of Concha y Toro epitomizes the acumen and aggressiveness that have made Manchester United among the most valuable brands in sports. A 2007 survey conducted by TNS Sport found that the team has 333 million supporters around the world. Last season, when United won its fourth English Premier League title in five years and made it to the finals of the European Cup, a cumulative audience of 4.2 billion watched its matches on television—the equivalent of a Super Bowl every week, according to Futures Sport & Entertainment. So lucrative is the United brand that Than Shwe, until March the head of Myanmar’s military government, once considered making a $1 billion bid to buy the club, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released in 2010 by WikiLeaks. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll meet someone who knows about Manchester United.