Manchester United last week confirmed that it has appointed Jon Tibbs Associates (JTA), a leading PR agency, to assist with its communications.
You might wonder why the highly successful soccer club has made such an appointment. While United is still enjoying success on the pitch, all is not well off. The club, realizing this, is taking steps to improve its media image, modernize corporate communications and improve commercial performance.
While the club is battling to win a record 19th domestic title on the field, the club’s owners are extremely unpopular, the club is massively in debt and the club is ‘‘seeking a greater understanding of the international profile of Manchester United”.
The club is owned by the Glazer family who have steered the club into a large debt position (about £526m). Fans are unhappy and there are continuing stories of rival groups, such as Jim O’Neill’s ‘Red Knights’ and Qatar Holding, tabling bids to take over the club.
JTA was founded by Jon Tibbs, who is considered a guru in communications and strategy in the Olympic movement. He worked on the successful Beijing 2008 bid and the controversial award of the 2018 Winter Olympics to the Russian city of Sochi. Since January, Tibbs has been working alongside United’s communications director, Phil Townsend, who has been managing football and company media relations. This arrangement was only formally announced last week.
It is widely thought that Tibbs will use his professionalism and leverage his vast experience to modernize corporate communications at Manchester United.
Another expectation will be that Tibbs will increase the commercialization of the Manchester United brand overseas. In the annual Deloitte Football Money League, which analyzes club revenues at the highest earning clubs, Manchester United recorded €349.8m (Euros) of revenue in 2009/10. The club sits in third place behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, who top the league for a sixth consecutive year. United will surely want to gain ground on its Spanish rivals in the coming years and break the €400m revenue threshold. Additionally, the breakdown of these revenues reveals some opportunities for the club – and this is where Tibbs should add value. United makes only 28% of its revenues from commercial activities, while for the German club Bayern Munich, in 4th place, this comparative is far higher at 53%.
United has a phenomenally large fan base across the globe (the self-claimed ‘world’s most popular football team’ has an estimated 333 million fans). From a strategic and commercial perspective, United has fans in some lucrative and large markets, such as China. The club has even made its official website available in Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. If Tibbs and Townsend can successfully embed an improved and modernized corporate communication policy, it should find it easier to develop and communicate brand values both domestically and globally – and that means generating more revenue for the club.
As I write this, United’s next match in the English Premier League is away to 3rd placed Arsenal (who were 5th in the Deloitte Money League). Arsenal, a London club, is another one that understands the importance of corporate communications. Over the last few years, they have adopted a more sophisticated sports marketing model and central to this is a shift to a US-influenced corporate communication policy. In 2009, the club appointed Ivan Gazidis, then deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer in the USA, as its new chief executive.
Some United fans may see the appointment of JTA as nothing more than a dose of spin-doctoring for the Glazer family, but if Tibbs repeats his Olympic success, substance will triumph over spin and United’s commercial performance will strengthen.