Why you’re a Man Utd fan (even if you don’t know it)

I wrote last week about why Manchester United almost certainly doesn’t have 108 million fans in China. That’s because the club doesn’t have fans, it has “followers” – exactly the word that made me suspicious in the first place. I might follow people on Twitter or Weibo, but it certainly doesn’t make me a fan.

Not surprisingly, the club is sticking to the script. Man Utd has confirmed to me that the figure was taken from what it calls a “robust survey” commissioned by the club and conducted between June and August 2011 by “leading marketing research agency” Kantarsport.

Leading agency? Well, they are part of WPP, so it figures that they know what they are doing. Robust survey? That’s a matter for debate. The club asked more than 53,000 people in 39 countries – approximately half the number of countries in which United have sponsorship deals, by the way – and came up with a total fanbase of 659 million.

The main problem stems from the reason the club commissioned the survey – robust or otherwise – in the first place: to drum up interest ahead of last year’s IPO on the NYSE. So the bigger the number that Kantar comes up with, the better it is for United, right?

You can imagine the discussion. Glazer 1: Let’s pay some company to say that we have 659 million fans around the world. Glazer 2: But we don’t. Glazer 1: Well let’s just call them followers instead. Glazer 2: OK.

Followers – as defined in the small print of the club’s IPO filing to the SEC – are people “who either watched live Manchester United matches, followed highlights coverage or read or talked about Manchester United regularly”.


So if you watch Man Utd play against your team and talk about it afterwards, then Man Utd considers you a follower. Er, right. Yes, all those Chelsea and Man City and Liverpool and Arsenal fans all around the world are probably still trying to pay off their credit card bills after stocking up on van Persie jerseys for Christmas.

OK, so the club is being sneaky. But the bigger problem: journalists, or more precisely, lazy journalists. Give them a press release and they’ll just churn it out verbatim. Forbes, the Telegraph, Bloomberg and doubtless many others all presented the numbers as credible when Kantar’s survey (the robust one, remember?) came out last year.

And Bloomberg did it again last week after the Wahaha and CCB deals were announced, but this time they went a step further. Check out the voiceover on the video at the end: “The club says it has 108 million fans in China.” Congratulations. You just became one.

To quote from Michael Bertin’s excellent article in Grantland:

If you are a business and you are entering into a sponsorship deal thinking that you’re going to have access to 659 million people lined up to give you money, you’re going to get yourself fleeced at the negotiating table. If you’re a United fan and you continue to flog the number about, you’re going to continue being annoying, all fewer than 659 million of you.

And if you’re Manchester United, you’ll continue putting out misleading press releases because you know the media will keep quoting them.

6 thoughts on “Why you’re a Man Utd fan (even if you don’t know it)”

  1. I am a Manchester United fan/ follower/ supporter/ lover… and my fiance is a Journalist!
    I showed her your post. I would like to share what she told me.
    If you’re looking at these figures from a business point of view, these numbers aren’t really wrong. Your objection is to the concept of ‘followers’. Anyone who as little as mentions Manchester United, is counted as a follower. But you see, in terms of brand building, even as little as a glance over the Man Utd logo counts as a target audience. Advertisers and PR believe that if you get then to see you, you can try to get them to buy you. “Push” strategy they say. I guess the point of saying there are 108 miln followers in China is, that potentially, Man Utd can influence 108 miln Chinese people.
    Numbers or not, I am pretty much sure that Man Utd is a brand big enough that any company would be proud to be associated with it. Now see, we are neighbours, and I never knew there is some drink like Wahaha until I saw it in a press release about Man Utd.
    Also, I must tell you, I came across your blog too while I was searching for Manchester United.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I understand what she is saying. I just hate that the club says “followers” when – by its own definition – it does NOT mean actual “fans”, BUT it wants everyone to think that it does mean real fans!
      Also, when it comes to football, fans are very tribal: if my rival club had a credit card sponsored by one bank, you couldn’t pay me enough to use that card. I would use ANY other bank but that one. So I don’t fully agree that they can influence all 108 million followers – at least not positively anyway 😉

      1. Yeah you got a point. And the reverse effect is true too. You can get a brand to influence people even without paying a penny. Look at me for example. I am saying wonderful things about Manchester United here on my blog, not that they pay me for free publicity (a hint to people at Old Trafford??)!

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