In the US, rarely can a fan go to a baseball game at any park in the country and not see a few New York Yankees caps in the crowd. The same can be said for the colors of "America’s Team," the Dallas Cowboys, wandering the aisles of every NFL stadium on Sundays. A similar phenomenon exists in Major League Soccer. Though located an ocean away, Manchester United is represented in the crowds of every MLS match, with Red Devils kits scattered throughout the stands.
However, amongst the hardcore soccer fans, United preeminence is watered down by those who support Chelsea (modernists), Liverpool (traditionalists), Arsenal (masochists), and even Manchester City (underdogs). Throw in those who are more likely to follow Spanish and Italian soccer than the English Premier League and United fans are almost lost in the crowd.
The United saturation begins at the next level of fandom, occupied by those who watch when they can and follow when they’re asked, but won’t wake up early to catch a match. They’re the crowd that boosts United’s numbers, making up a silent but decisive army. And at the next level of fans – those that like the game but are unlikely to watch outside a World Cup – Manchester United may be the only club they know.
The ability to transcend hardcore fans, even in a culture where soccer serves a small but acutely devoted following; that’s what makes Manchester United soccer’s version of America’s Team.
Part of that status is owed to Manchester United’s on-field success, serving as Premier League hegemons (12 titles in 19 seasons). Part of it is a credit to David Beckham, whose marketing juggernaut gave casual fans a hook into the club. And a third part comes from is the explosive growth of the English Premier League, by far the most popular league on earth.
But just as important, Manchester United has consciously tried to be the club at the tip of the uninitiated’s tongue; a paradox, considering the ethos of club instead of franchise is said to hinge on supporter culture. United, however, is most likely to be looking beyond Old Trafford when asking how the club can grow.
United was one of the first clubs to consciously target the Asian market, with summer tours and the signings of Park Ji-Sung (South Korea) and the forgotten Dong Fangzhuo (China) giving it early footholds in the world’s most populous market. Two summers past, Manchester United set down in Africa, making inroads with an audience that was soon to be entranced by the World Cup.
It’s part of a formula that other clubs have only recently began to employ, albeit with fewer rewards. While summer tours in distant lands are not unique to United, no club has thrown the same marketing might behind the charge. And no club could. Manchester United has resources most clubs couldn’t dream of. Combined with its dedication to reaching new markets, United has been able to rival Real Madrid as the world’s biggest sports team (remarkable considering Real Madrid’s long-established global reach).
Of course, Barcelona – Manchester United’s opposition in Saturday’s Champions League final (2 p.m. ET on FOX) – is also in this conversation, too, though its popularity is built more on its game than its marketing. Barcelona sells its soccer ethos – a beautiful style of play they have gainfully employed since importing it in the early ’70s. The result is a sales pitch that hardcore soccer fans find irresistible. But since quick 1-2 passing doesn’t translate well to a billboard, poster or shirt, the approach leaves the Catalans playing catch-up.
But Barcelona’s starting to gain ground, a testament to the beauty of its play. As video steaming, pay-per-view, satellite and broadening rights agreements give curious fans more access to the game, more people are following the spectacle that’s defining world soccer. Manchester United, Real Madrid? Yeah, we know who they are. But everybody’s talking about Barcelona, supposedly the best ever. And with each pair of eyes that turns with that in mind, Barcelona is that much closer to making up their gap on United.
By its nature, Barcelona’s sales pitch is inside-out. Rather than taking United’s approach of preaching to the masses, it is the hardcore fans that are selling Barcelona’s product. When those who only follow a random match (or maybe don’t know anybody besides Manchester United) look for another nibble of world soccer, the inundated point them to Lionel Messi. They point them to Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. They point them to Barcelona.
All of which pits United against Barca for perhaps the world’s biggest prize in any campaign for financial domination: the United States, where profits can be infused by commercial opportunities available nowhere else in the world. Perhaps that’s why Manchester United will be in the States this summer. And Barcelona will be joining them.
For the second year in a row, Manchester United will face Major League Soccer’s All-Stars, this time at Red Bull Arena in New York. In the lead up, the Red Devils will be stopping in New England, Seattle and Chicago before meeting up with Barcelona for a Champions League final rematch in Washington D.C., the start of Barca’s tour. Spain’s champions move on to play Chivas in Miami and Club America in Dallas.
Playing in front of huge crowds at each stop, the clubs will give hundreds of thousands the chance to reinforce the taste they got from television. But this time, instead of seeing them from the couch, through groggy lenses battling an early weekend wake up, fans can take the family, go to the stadium and see the clubs in the same context that they’re used to taking in their mainstream, domestic teams.
Tailgating, beer, crowds of 50,000-plus – it makes the vaguely European aura more real to a fan base ensconced in a distinctly different sports culture.
Add the television, radio and Internet bombardment, and the cultural immersion could be complete. For a month in the middle of summer, Manchester United and Barcelona will be like any other franchise on the North American landscape. They’ll be on our televisions. Their quotes will be in the stories we read. Your neighbors and their kids can dust off the one, red soccer kit they own and take in an evening at the park.
This Saturday represents one other time your neighbor’s family might break the kit out of the closet. That’s when Barcelona, the team the diehards have fawned over, will make their pitch latest pitch to the U.S. fan base. That’s when Manchester United, America’s Team, will try to stop them.
Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FoxSoccer.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @richardfarley.