Despite looking like they’ll end this season in the Champions League places, the illustrious history of Manchester United means that many see the last two years as a particularly low point in their history. Things were always going to be difficult following the exit of Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of the 2012/13 season, but few expected the fall from grace that so swiftly and forcefully followed.
David Moyes was seen as a more than competent replacement and was chosen by Ferguson himself. Cut to the end of that season, however, and Man Utd would finish 7th, out of the European places and with their worst finish of the Premier League era. This left many asking – is the empire finally falling? Was the place once dubbed The Theatre of Dreams actually producing nightmares?
Those were questions posed and ones which, as yet, remain unanswered. However, recent revelations have proved that, where their performances on the pitch may have continued to suffer, their brand certainly hadn’t. In the same season as their worst league finish of the last quarter century, Man Utd posted a record annual revenue of £433.2 million in the year 2014. Given that the club had lost the substantial income normally brought in every season by regular participation in the Champions League, this was no mean feat. But perhaps it was another revelation of the monetary kind which proved exactly how strong the pulling power of the Red Devils still is.
Statistics released by Mike Ashley-owned Sports Direct showed that none other than Angel Di Maria, United’s £59 million pound Argentinian signing had topped their replica shirt sales for the season 2014/15 so far. Proof, if any were needed, that image and brand can really sell. Di Maria undoubtedly started well on arrival in the Premier League but has hardly set it alight when the season is considered as a whole. I hear what many of you may be thinking though – it doesn’t matter what club Di Maria plays for. He was a star of the most recent FIFA World Cup and one of the rising stars in world football in the last 10 years. But look at the rest of the top 10. No less than 5 are Man United players. This includes David De Gea, the only goalkeeper to make the grade. Often an unglamorous position with few admirers, goalkeeping tops are amongst the lowest selling, so to make the top 10 is some achievement. It’s doubtful De Gea would have made that list if he wasn’t between the sticks at Old Trafford, ability (remarkable as it is) aside. As if to further prove the point, 3-goal-man and all-round expensive flop Falcao still manages to make the list, outselling none other than Segio Aguero, Steven Gerrard and United teammate Robin Van Persie.
Some may scoff at the significance of shirt sales, of course. Small change, you may think, in comparison to the TV deals, transfer fees and other wads of cash flying around in today’s game. But the truth is, in a game where image is everything, where players have the rights to their likenesses written into contracts for the sake of protecting potential financial reward, shirt sales are becoming a more important part of the to-and-fro of finance in football. The first memorable instance of shirt sales being an integral part of a player transfer was in the transfer of David Beckham from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2003. Brand Beckham was already in full swing and Real Madrid acknowledged this, with Adidas stating that Real Madrid shirt sales rose 350% in the year after Beckham’s transfer. Beckham, himself, used this to his advantage, taking the number 23 in an attempt to piggy-back on some of the marketing opportunities exploited by Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball player. There’s no doubt the tactic paid off for Brand Beckham. In fact, throughout his career, it’s thought Beckham’s shirt sales exceeded £1 BILLION, with French club Paris St Germain making a staggering £15 million from shirt sales alone in Beckham’s 6 month stint at the club.
The phenomenon continues today and is a serious consideration for clubs seeking to recoup the ever-increasing transfer fees being spent. Real Madrid again, though, seem to have this down to a fine art. It’s believed sales of James Rodriguez shirts brought in £21 million pounds in revenue in just two days after he signed. Furthermore, its believed sales of replica Cristiano Ronaldo shirts have. alone, exceeded the £80 million fee paid for the Portuguese star. Ronaldo, like Beckham, has built a brand around it, using his shirt number and initials to create the ‘CR7’ brand.
S0 there you have it. Shirt sales may once have meant nothing – but today? Today, they mean a lot. The dominance of Manchester United over the market over the past two years proves that, despite a poor spell in an otherwise trophy-littered history, they still have that special something. They have that elusive quality of invincibility and attractiveness that others around them have tried to buy. Sure, there have been high profile instances over the years where players have resisted the strong pull of Old Trafford. Alan Shearer opted to join his boyhood club, Newcastle United, for a record £15 million in the summer of 1996, instead of heading to Manchester. And we all know how close Paul Gascoigne came to pulling on the famous red shirt. But the fact remains, Manchester United have always been a club with the ability to attract the very best and there’s no doubt that statistics show that attraction remains, not just for the players wearing the shirt, but also for the fans buying it. With European football in the not-so-distant future, the excuse that ‘not being in the Champions League’ will stop players heading there will cease. Manchester United may have taken a knock or two since Sir Alex left. They may have been mourning what’s been lost. But Premier League opponents need to be wary – they’ve been licking their wounds, hibernating and recovering. And all the while, the till has kept ringing, lining the coffers of a club all but ready to bounce back. Something tells me a return to old ways may be on the cards as soon as next season – and Jose, Manuel and Brendan may get a lot more than they bargained for.