and JOHN McKIE
Manchester United fans, already upset by the transfers over the summer of some of their star players, were dealt another blow yesterday when the club unveiled soaring revenue from its widely criticised merchandising operation.
United recorded sales of pounds 23.5m from kit, videos and other gear emblazoned with their colours in the year to July, up from pounds 14.2m in 1994. Five years ago the club sold just pounds 2m from merchandising. The increased revenue from these sales helped the publicly quoted company that owns the club to double its profits from pounds 10.8m last year to pounds 20m.
Football clubs have come under fire for the money they make selling team strips, which change every couple of years. Critics say clubs prey on fashion-conscious children and their hapless parents. Manchester United have three different designs to tempt youngsters, covering home and away matches.
This summer saw a 13 per cent increase in ticket prices and the sale of three of the club's stars, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis.
Andy Walsh, secretary of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, said yesterday: "It's a scandal. They promised us there was going to be a freeze on prices for two years. They're pricing the ordinary fan out the market. Last year, to follow them home and away, cost pounds 3,000. To take my son to two home games and an away game in Sheffield cost more than pounds 100."
The association's vice-chairman, Johnny Flacks, added: "In the past five years, there's been a 300 per cent increase in prices. Manchester United used to pride themselves on being one of the cheapest clubs in the country but now they're one of the most expensive outside London."
The growth in profits came despite a traumatic 1994-95 season for the club in which it failed to win a major competition, finishing as runner- up in both the Premiership and FA Cup.
All clubs now supplement gate receipts with advertising and merchandising activities. None, however, makes as much as Manchester United.
Martin Edwards, chief executive, defended the soaring revenues yesterday, pointing out that the biggest-selling shirt size last year had been extra large. Football kit was anyway extremely hard-wearing and so good value, he suggested, and he defended the decision to produce the variety of kit. He said the club was adopting an "energetic" merchandising approach. "We have three kits in progression, a first, a second and a third strip and they all have a two-year cycle, and so there's a new kit each year."
Mr Edwards attempted to reassure fans: "We won't be having a new kit for the rest of this season."
Merchandising overtook gate receipts and programme sales last year as Manchester United's biggest revenue earner and it now represents almost 40 per cent of the club's sales.
Following United's double-winning run in the 1993-94 season, gate receipts also increased, up a tenth to pounds 19.6m. Turnstile takings were boosted by an inflation-beating 13 per cent ticket price rise which had been repeated this season.
Mr Edwards said the planned increase of Old Trafford's capacity to 55,000 by the end of the season, up from 44,000, might mean a slowdown in ticket price increases. The North stand at United's ground is currently being rebuilt at a cost of pounds 19m. Elsewhere, increased revenues from television fees, sponsorship and royalties and conference and catering income, combined with a jump in net transfer fees, helped double the profits.
Investment column, page 22