This week Manchester United unveiled plans to launch a proprietary digital property that will serve as both a social network and media outlet. When it came to figuring out who was right for the task, the Red Devils went with an agency familiar with fanatics, SapientNitro. If you’re not familiar, they happen to be the agency that fulfilled every “sneakerhead’s” dream by producing Foot Locker’s Sneakerpedia.
As a social network, the platform will aggregate a global audience and build the international fanbase. As a content outlet, it will create a hub to distribute digital media on a global scale.
ManU claims to be targeting an estimated 500m loyal international fans, a group over half the size of Facebook’s registered 800m and a cool 185m larger than the population of the US. With such a massive legion of dedicated loyalists, ideas of advertising, sponsorship and e-commerce opportunities within the network seem endless. And the chance to make the rules for anyone that wants to engage with their brand on their turf with their fans? It’s a smart play to protect the brand, aggregate their audience, control content and don’t forget about the enormous revenue potential, which sounds about right coming from the gang at Old Trafford. The existing ManUTV on their website has no live match video beyond highlights and still operates on a paid access model.
This move comes as no surprise from a brand that first floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1991 and is rumored to be targeting an IPO in Singapore early 2012.
Does this strategy finally crack the nut on reaching a global audience in developing markets where media distributors still require convincing on the level of interest in the team and the value of broadcast rights? If broadcasters are tough on negotiating what the team believes is a fair valuation for rights, an online approach is key. Given that audiences are shifting their viewership from broadcast to digital coupled with the desire for a la carte programming options, why negotiate with multiple cable carriers on multiple continents when you can aggregate your target audience digitally? It’s very likely the club’s fans would opt for a pay per event or subscription based model to see ManU games.
Which got me to thinking – what would a US version of this look like? Soccer has a strong following in the US and teams like the Yankees have a large international fanbase, but the ideal translation would be at the league level with the brand equity and control over content of the NFL – a brand that presently has over 4 million Facebook fans and is closing in on 2.5 million followers on Twitter. The dedication of true fans that paint their bodies, attend games in sub-zero temperatures, play in fantasy leagues every week and take their fandom to the grave would surely translate to a proprietary digital platform. This desire to engage with the brand around the clock (and in the afterlife) leads me to believe that a similar concept, if executed properly, could certainly work here and abroad for the NFL as well.
I’m looking forward to watching the ManU network unfold over the next two years and seeing if this network is an early indicator of what is possible with major sport brands. With so many leagues and teams looking to engage with their fans beyond borders and half a world away, digital engagement is key to global expansion.