Manchester United | The world's most popular club?

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Football News

Malcolm Glazer may not be the most popular character around Old Trafford, but he can take comfort in owning the world's most popular sports club.

In business, personal popularity it not important, what counts is the bottom line. Glazer owns, through his 2005 purchase, the most popular club in the world, Manchester United, and that's a far more lucrative title.

A recent survey found that the Red Devils have 659 million followers across the world - almost 10% of the world's population - and since 2007, the club's following has doubled. The figure may be an exaggeration - the club commissioned the survey itself - but United's brand has legitimate global appeal. It seems not many people like Glazer, but a huge amount like what he has.

Such popularity translates into revenue in a way that friendship does not. Glazer bought into a United brand that was already wildly popular, and has since made it more so.

According to Forbes magazine, Manchester United are the world's richest club, and have been for the past eight seasons. Valued at £1.396 billion, United sit £250 million clear of second-placed Real Madrid and more than £1 billion above Barcelona.

And much of that value stems from having the world's biggest fan-base. Supporters are vital to achieving that age-old business trick of balancing the books. A stable fan-base establishes a sustainable revenue stream, and with the advent of Financial Fair Play, this has never been more important.

United's commercial director, Richard Arnold certainly thinks so. Speaking to reporters, Arnold said: "Financial fair play represents a very appealing prospects for clubs at all levels.

"Manchester United is very well placed by virtue of the strong business model it has got off the pitch, and the success that generates on the pitch."

Michel Platini's pet project will have Manchester City and Chelsea scrambling for their accountant's phone numbers, but United's comparative restraint in the transfer market has put them in a stronger position.

Of course, their frugality is partly determined by the colossal debt repayments required to finance the Glazer takeover, but with a net worth which grew 20% last year, United have their numbers under control.

Commercial and media revenue has skyrocketed at Old Trafford, and now outstrips match-day income. But a second-placed league finish and a disastrous Champions League campaign means Real Madrid and Barcelona are growing more quickly, and are catching up. Both Spanish sides boast higher yearly revenues, which explains how they can afford to retain Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and still surround them with the world's top talent.

But in today's globalised game, popularity doesn't just mean fans turning up to Old Trafford. Global popularity means bigger and better sponsorship deals, commercial agreements and media commitments. A £40m training kit deal with logistics firm DHL, and agreements with Nike and Aon, allowed United to mitigate a drop in revenue caused by their European exit. It's hard to believe United will perform as poorly on the pitch next season, but their off-the-field revenue will prop them up regardless.

Since the dawn of the Premier League era success off the pitch has been defined by success on it. Clubs have been encouraged to incur huge debts in their pursuit of silverware, and Chelsea and Manchester City have done just that, enjoying jubilant trophy parades in the May sunshine, bankrolled by owners with little regard for profits and losses.

Ferguson's side have also taken on huge debts - gross debt now stands at £433 million - and that burden has enforced a certain degree of financial discipline at United.

The Old Trafford side profess to run their club as a business, which means they often frustrate their fans by missing out on the world's top transfer targets. Their signings are instead thought of as "investments", younger players with resale value like Ashley Young and Phil Jones.

As a result, the Red Devils have been forced to fall back on their competitive advantages relative to other Premier League clubs - namely their manager's reputation and their capacity to take home titles.

Chief executive David Gill admitted that the club relies heavily on Alex Ferguson's record, the opportunity to play alongside legends like Ryan Giggs and the club's history and heritage. But in recent transfer windows, Manchester City - in the case of Samir Nasri - and Chelsea - in the case of Eden Hazard - have pipped United to marquee signings.

The difficulty for Gill is that such advantages rely on an emotional attachment to the club. In sport, history counts for a lot, and the chance to follow in the footsteps of your heroes is a powerful incentive, but money in the bank requires no such emotional reaction, it's just a player making a business decision.

United hope Financial Fair play will accentuate their competitive advantages, but a rare trophyless season has come at just the wrong time. City and Chelsea can now offer the financial rewards off the pitch and the team rewards on it.

City and Chelsea do not trouble themselves with the difficulty of balancing the books, and although record losses do not incur punishments yet, they may soon do so. Platini has suggested that clubs that fail to break even may be excluded from the most lucrative of competitions, the Champions League.

The Kantar Media survey also found that United have more than double the number of followers as Barcelona in Asia - the fastest growing market. The Red Devils have more than 300 million followers on the continent, the result of a smart business decision to move into that market before anyone else.

In 1975, United were newly crowned second division champions, yet still drew a crowd of 70,000 on a tour of Indonesia. Over the past 10 years, pre-season trips to the Far East have become an annual obligation. Rio Ferdinand once said touring Asia was like being in 'The Beatles', and though many clubs have since followed, United remain the top attraction.

Such commitment has evidently paid off, as United can now claim to have by far and away the most amount of fans in the world. Such a claim will interest sponsors eager to break into these emerging markets, and will mean the club is positioned for the long-term even if results on the pitch dip for a season or two.

The Red Devils have quietly gone about their business expanding in the key markets. And business is what United do best.

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