What makes a global brand such as Manchester United successful despite the tests of time, pandemic and recessions? How has the historic English club managed to set a benchmark for businesses across sports?
Manchester United’s Group Managing Director Richard Arnold provided insight into running of one of the biggest sporting brands in a conversation with Shikhar Malhotra, Vice Chairman and CEO, HCL Healthcare; Director, HCL Technologies and Trustee, Shiv Nadar Foundation.
Arnold spoke about the club’s intention to visit India and how the coronavirus pandemic pulled the plug.
“We don’t tend to think in terms of market. The fans are all part of a big family. India is an important part of our family. We have been organising live screenings. For the first team (Premier League) to play in India, it has been on our minds for some time now. We planned to make a trip this summer, but we could not because of the CoVID situation. But we will try to make a trip to India in the future,” he said.
Arnold has worked with several larger than life personalities at the club. He was of the opinion that these great leaders have little egos and treat everyone with respect. Showing respect regardless of reputation is an integral part of United’s culture and is something that everyone associated with the club display.
He said - “One of the fascinating parts about working with big names such as Sir Alex Ferguson, great former and present players is that people with great success in life tend to not have huge egos. They have big characters and huge personalities but one on one they are wonderful people. United chooses and develops such players.
“The academy focuses on how great character makes great players. Whether they are the most revered player of all time or a lady who makes tea, they are all people just the same. I think that is one of the most important cultures at Manchester United.
"The respect shown to those performing well and to those who are less recognised externally is the same. That is the message I want to give people. When you are meeting business people, presidents, great leaders, it is worth remembering that they might have tremendous power and responsibilities, but they are just people."
A club with a huge following as United are bound to be subject to high standards. The diversity among the target audience is yet another challenge that the massive brand faces. However, United have managed to pull through recessions and pandemic thanks to a widespread fanbase.
United is also one of the few football clubs to be publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the discipline and rigour with which the club manages financial sustainability has been key to their growth.
“The most exciting and challenging part of the job is the concept of how important we are to the billion people who follow us. 91 percent of the fans don’t change the team they support. We got 1.1 billion people. 85 percent of our fans say that the football club is a part of their personality and identity. That is how a billion people feel about us. time spent on us on club apps was 40 percent of total clubs last year, which is huge.
“We are connecting with 300 million fans digitally every month. That is a tremendous opportunity as well as a responsibility and a challenge just in terms of the scale, the languages, the cultural and time differences. There is a lot of detail that goes into ensuring we are appropriate all the time and are respectful of the relationship.
“Resilience is one of the core components of the club’s DNA. It prides itself on hiring and developing talent accordingly. Like Sir Alex Ferguson said, United is never beaten, they just run out of time sometimes. That’s the philosophy that inspired the 1999 Champions League. As the fans called it, the Fergie time. Just like that, we refuse to be beaten down. That’s the culture we have off the pitch as well.
“This is the second or third global crisis we have seen while I’ve been part of the club but the club came through everything and grew stronger. We invested in technology, young players. This resilience is what you hear from everyone associated with Manchester United."
It’s incredible how a 142-year-old club has managed to stay relevant across different generations and continues to cater to the interests of the current generation. Richard explained that innovation, which has always been an integral part of the club’s history, has been translated off the pitch to ensure growth.
“United’s history includes the history of innovation. Sir Bobby Charlton said that he always wants Manchester United to be the first to do the most important thing. In the 1950s, Sir Matt Busby was one of the first to take the team abroad in the summer to prepare. They took a steam ship to America and stayed there for three months.
“United have always had an incredible broadcast footprint across the world. Now we can engage with the fans directly. You can see what the fans are saying on the social media, apps and so on. And this is not just during the game but throughout the week. This is only going to be more important in the future when you can choose what content you want to engage,” he concluded.