FA Cup final: how local rivalry turned into global battle for brand supremacy

It will be a mighty convoy, perhaps not visible from space but certainly from the verges of the M6. A minimum of 60 coaches, travelling south on Saturday morning, will transport supporters of Manchester’s two prestigious football clubs to Wembley Stadium. There, the men’s sides will contest a historic encounter, competing together in an FA Cup final for the first time in their 140-year history.

That there is greater anticipation than usual for the traditional domestic showpiece is not just down to its unique matchup. The rivalry between the red and blue sides of Manchester is bubbling away at a notable temperature and the final finds itself playing a central role.

Related: Manchester derbies: five of the most meaningful meetings since 1894

When United wrapped up their league season a week ago, their manager, Erik ten Hag, took to the Old Trafford pitch. It is traditional to thank the fans for their support but the Dutchman wanted to assure them of something more. “There’s still one game to go and I’m sure these players will give everything to beat Manchester City next week,” he said.

United finished third and remain without a Premier League title since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. City, meanwhile, are champions for the third year in a row and the fifth time in seven years under their manager, Pep Guardiola. If City win the FA Cup, next Saturday they will have the chance to complete a prestigious treble of trophies by beating Internazionale in the Champions League final. It’s a feat achieved only once by an English club: Ferguson’s United in 1999.

Ferguson once spoke of City, after the deal that saw Abu Dhabi’s sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan take control of the club, as United’s “noisy neighbours”. In the intervening years the volume has been turned up. Should City complete the treble, United’s reputation as the pre-eminent club of the Premier League era would be under serious threat.

Manchester City fans celebrate after Erling Haaland scores against Manchester United
During his time as Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson described Manchester City as ‘noisy neighbours’. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

City’s dominance on the field is real, but currently hedged with caveats. The club has been served with 115 charges by the Premier League, accused of failing to fully disclose the nature of the club’s finances, the money they paid to players and staff, and failing to comply with an investigation into these irregularities. City deny the charges, but they have been surrounded by a cloud of scepticism regardless and debate surrounds the state-funded ownership of the club.

These debates speak to another area of rivalry between City and United, the one that goes on off the pitch. Both clubs are major players in a global game that continues to grow in financial value. According to all publicly available assessments City are the richest club in the world, another title that used to belong to United. City’s annual report for 2021-22 showed record revenues of £613m. United took in £583m, placing them fourth in the Deloitte’s football rich list, down from £628m in 2018-19.

According to Andrea Sartori, a former global head of sports at KPMG and founder of the advisory company Football Benchmark, there is a “very strong correlation” between on- and off-field success.

Related: When Manchester City escaped the third tier – as United won the treble

“Ten years ago Manchester United would be at the top of everything,” Sartori says. “But neither by enterprise value nor by size of revenue nor branding value nor in terms of profitability are Manchester United at the top of the world today. None of them. In the post-Ferguson era there has been a decline in sporting performance. You didn’t see it in the first two to four years but there is a decline in performance off the pitch too.”

While United have waned, and are in the throes of a protracted sales process instigated by their majority shareholders, the Glazer family, City are enjoying the other end of the curve. “What is certain is that there is a virtuous circle,” Sartori says. “City have enjoyed sustained success, Premier League titles, Champions League finals. They have had constant international exposure and with the right commercial team you get better revenues, which means better players, which means more success.”

It is interesting to wonder how central just two people – Ferguson and Guardiola – have been to the financial dominance of their clubs. But while Ferguson has vacated the stage, Guardiola remains, dominating the back-page headlines and making charming appearances on the American soccer comedy Ted Lasso.

City have a keen eye on growing their fanbase. They have a global network of clubs to help spread that word, the City Group counting 13 teams from New York to Yokohama under its umbrella. They may yet become the biggest team in terms of support too. But currently they are not, and in this area United hold the advantage.

“United are still a phenomenal club and in terms of social media they are the third biggest club in the world and significantly ahead of City,” Sartori says, the top two being Real Madrid and Barcelona. He cites figures showing that, at the end of last month, United had a cumulative social media following of 220.3m users, compared with City’s 146.5m.

Related: When Manchester City escaped the third tier – as United won the treble

United’s 20 years of success has built a global fanbase as their legacy. “Supporters are very loyal,” says Sartori, “It’s very rare that an individual changes the team they support during their lifetime.” But that doesn’t mean the tide can’t change. “Teams will try to catch the attention of fans at six to nine and young supporters are excited by the clubs that are winning, and that have the biggest stars,” Sartori says. “Young fans are shifting [from more historic clubs] to other clubs like City and Paris Saint-Germain, absolutely”.

For those that run the clubs, and those in charge of football, it is the long-term fight for global dominance that often holds the attention. For those at Wembley, however, the quest for advantage is much more personal. Saturday’s Cup final is likely to prove once again that one cannot exist without the other.