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Man who? UK team has big US prospects
Brits may hate Man U's new American owner -- while Americans fall in love with the team.
May 13, 2005: 6:41 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The biggest sports story in the world was basically ignored on U.S. sports pages this week, even though an American was the central player.

Malcolm Glazer, owner of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought a controlling stake in Manchester United, the British soccer club that is the world's most popular team. In any sport.

The purchase sparked near riots in England, where fans are worried about the debt Glazer assumed to raise the $1.5 billion he needs to buy the club. They also didn't like the idea of a Yank owning something so inherently British.

That purchase price is 50 percent more than the most expensive NFL team, the Washington Redskins. It would also be enough to buy both the Yankees and their rival Red Sox.

But USA Today didn't run a word about the deal in its print edition, while the New York Times ran the story in its World Business section. The Wall Street Journal had more complete coverage than the Washington Post or LA Times, combined. Yet even the Journal gave far better play to a story about baseball pitchers wearing single digit numbers.

On the other side of the pond, British papers covered the story as at least slightly more important than the end of the British empire. And just as tragic.

It's easy for U.S. editors to think that Americans don't care about soccer. They're partly right -- Americans don't care about U.S. soccer teams such as those in Major League Soccer.

But that ignores the fact that Man U has become a U.S. fan favorite.

"American does love a winner," said Charlie Stillitano, a former MLS team executive and CEO of ChampionsWorld, the sports promoter which has organized tours of top overseas soccer teams here, including Man U. "We're used to best baseball players, best basketball players, best hockey players in the world. I think Man U is popular because they're seen as the best of the best."

One of those fans who fell in love with Man U is Joel Glazer, Malcolm Glazer's son, who is expected to run the team when his family assumes control.

"We are long-term sports investors and avid Manchester United fans," said the younger Glazer in a statement Friday. "Our intention is to work with the current management, players and fans to ensure Manchester United continues to develop and achieve even greater success."

Strong sales for any sport

According to SportsScan Info, a sales tracking service, Man U has sold more licensed jerseys in the United States year to date than all the MLS teams combined.

Granted it's not a huge number -- about 2,500 shirts at 12,000 stores nationwide. But it's more than the number of uniforms sold by Glazer's cross-bay rivals Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and it tops sales totals of 19 out of the 24 U.S. National Hockey League teams (OK, maybe that's not a fair fight).

Former Man U star David Beckham is as well known to the average U.S. sports fan (52 percent) as the reigning Most Valuable Players of the American League and the National Basketball Association, according to a survey last month by Marketing Evaluations.

More important, when it played on the ChampionsWorld tours of exhibition games around the United States the last two summers, the team drew an average of 65,655 fans to each game.

That's better than the average attendance of 10 NFL teams last year, including Glazer's Bucs. It's almost triple the average attendance of the MLS' most popular team, the Los Angeles Galaxy. And remember, Man U was playing exhibition games.

"They happened to be at the right place at the right time," said Paul Kennedy, managing editor of Soccer America magazine, who has seen marketing surveys that estimate that Man U has about 4 million U.S. fans.

The team will get more attention in years to come, as more games became available through satellite TV and digital cable.

David Sternberg, general manager of the Fox Soccer Channel, which shows English Premier League games and other European matches, said it's not uncommon for Man U matches to get twice the viewership of its other games.

Fortunately for Glazer, popularity in the United States is gravy for the team. Unlike most major U.S. sports -- where teams have to share merchandise sales and overseas revenues equally with the other teams in the league -- Man U's global expansion is all its own to enjoy.

Of course, the United States is still a relatively small part of its revenue stream, well less than 10 percent according to most estimates. And other non-European markets may offer even more growth potential.

"Soccer is much bigger there than it is here, and Asia is just much bigger," said Kennedy. The team will tour Asia this summer rather than the United States.

Man U's American fans can be happy one of their own is to run the team, because it probably means another U.S. tour is in the offing.

"I didn't think they'd be back (touring the U.S.) for at least a couple of years," said ChampionsWorld's Stillitano. "With the new ownership, that could change,"

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Malcolm Glazer
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