Football: A world sold on United: Simon O'Hagan studies the unrivalled sales pitch of a club with global appeal

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TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Karen already has the Trainer's Jacket ( pounds 59.99 boys / large boys; pounds 64.99 all other sizes), and now she's got the replica away shirt - the black one with blue and gold trim, price pounds 34.99. She wants it personalised, but a simple name and number won't do. She wants 'Ooh-Aah Can

tona]' on it, plus the big number 7. The assistant starts to count out the characters: 'O- O-H-hyphen-A-A-H-C-A-N-T- O-N-A. Oh and she wants the exclamation mark as well. So that's 15 times 75p . . .'

Karen is lucky - or her mother is - that Cantona only wears a single-digit number (price pounds 3). For a double-number (Bryan Robson's 12, say, or Roy Keane's 16), you pay pounds 5.50. Then, if you want them, there are the Premier League badges, one for each sleeve, price pounds 4.50. Or you could go all the way and have a pair of Champions Premier League badges, price pounds 5.50. A fully adorned United replica shirt could cost pounds 55- plus. 'It's not us that sets the prices,' says an assistant sheepishly. 'It's the club.'

This is the Manchester United Superstore in Market Street, central Manchester - a penalty area's worth of United merchandise that, like United's other superstore at Old Trafford, is a shrine not just to the Most Famous Football Club in the World, but to the Most Commercially Minded one as well. Replica shirts aren't the half of it. Nor are mugs and scarves, though they sell those as well of course. How about a United duvet cover and pillowcase set ( pounds 29.99)? Or some autographed wallpaper ( pounds 6.99 per roll)? A pewter tankard ( pounds 14.99)? Pair of slippers ( pounds 9.99)? Baby romper suit ( pounds 14.99)? It's all there.

'To me it's just preaching Manchester United,' says Edward Freedman, the club's merchandising manager. 'It's about getting more and more people interested in the club.' And more people means more money. In the 20 months that Freedman has been at Old Trafford the merchandising side of the club's business has taken off like a Dennis Irwin free-kick. And as United, so dominant in the Premiership this season, embark on their FA Cup campaign at Sheffield United today, it doesn't look like stopping.

In the 1991-92 season merchandising turnover amounted to pounds 2.7m, or 13 per cent of the total. Last season it rose 90 per cent to pounds 5.2m, or 21 per cent of the total. Even the gate receipts turnover last year was only pounds 10m. So for every pound spent on watching United, 50p went on merchandise. This season takings are up again.

Compare Arsenal's figures, for example. They think they are doing well, but at pounds 2.2m their merchandising turnover last season was less than half United's. United, of course, are unique. No other club can touch them in terms of global appeal. As well as 106,000 club members - 62,000 more than can get into the ground - there are United fans the world over, the vast majority of whom will never come within 100 miles of Old Trafford.

That is the key to understanding the club's merchandising success. What United have realised is that these 'supporters' - not just in London and Southampton, but in Malta and the United States and Japan and Australia - will shell out if it means being able to claim their own little share of the glory and glamour that have long been synonymous with the club.

The success of the present side, though - the first to emulate the title-winning one of 1967 - has engendered a new level of fervour altogether. In commercial terms Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona are far more than mere footballers. Their value to United lies not just in the goals they score but in the merchandise which, with their names or pictures attached, will sell by the baseball cap full.

The figures speak for themselves. United have already sold 150,000 copies of the champions video ( pounds 12.99) they launched last year, and it's still going strong. Over Christmas, when the Old Trafford superstore was so busy it had to close its doors to the crowds outside, the club had no fewer than three titles in the Gallup top 10 of sport and fitness videos, alongside the likes of Jerry Hall's Yogacise and Shape Your Body Work-Out with Cindy Crawford.

The club launched a monthly magazine ( pounds 1.95) at the start of last year. Such has been demand that an initial print run of 25,000 will have reached 120,000 by next month. A bi- monthly video-magazine ( pounds 6.99) came out last month, and the club now publish their own books. There are plans for further expansion into 'communications'. Don't be surprised if you soon find you can tune into Radio United. And in a move which suggests that Old Trafford could yet become the Disneyland of the north, United are planning to launch a cartoon character. The club clearly understand the importance of catching them young.

Videos are a particularly big growth area. With one on Eric Cantona in mind, the club have had a camera filming nothing but the Frenchman throughout every home match this season. And one of their biggest video successes has been The Very Best: Ryan and George, bringing together the two most potent symbols of the old and the new United.

Such ventures would seem to undermine the efforts of Alex Ferguson to keep the pressure off Giggs and play down the Best comparisons. Freedman disputes that, claiming rather that the magazine and videos, produced in-house, do a service to Ferguson and his team in allowing them to present themselves to their public in a more controlled environment than that provided by the national press. Commercially, Freedman acknowledges, the appeal of a Best-Giggs video was irresistible.

So does all this amount to a licence to print money? 'Not at all,' Freedman says. 'You have to have value in the product. It's not just a question of slapping the words Manchester United on a souvenir and assuming it will sell. It won't unless the quality's there. We couldn't charge pounds 20 instead of pounds 6.99 for our video magazine and still expect it to sell.'

But there remains something troubling about a great football club appearing to turn itself into a rapacious, money- making machine, oiled by its own supporters. Are United guilty of ripping people off? 'I don't think anyone's being priced out of the market,' says Danny McGregor, the club's commercial manager. 'We still have a standing area here as well as seats, and when the tickets go on sale it's always the seats that go first, even though it's cheaper to stand.' For Freedman there is only one argument - good old market forces. If people want something, they'll pay for it, he says.

This hard-headedness, belying the romance of popular United mythology, is not lost on the United fanzine Red Issue. Its latest issue contains a spoof souvenir catalogue offering such deals as '1994-95 home shirts: cost price pounds 1.50, United price only pounds 45 adults, pounds 55 children.' Red Issue's Dave Taylor says: 'You can't blame United for cashing in, and if people want to buy the stuff that's up to them. But some of it does seem a bit excessive.' And it's not the most efficient operation, either. At least one United fan ordered a couple of baby- grows at the beginning of December, had his cheque banked within days, but still hasn't received the goods.

United's commercialisation vividly illustrates the cultural change that has overtaken football in the past decade. The game doesn't come much more executive than at Old Trafford these days, and if that's the price to be paid for ridding the game of its more unseemly elements, then it's one that plenty of people are not only prepared to pay, but actually like to pay if it makes them feel part of something special.

The Morrison family is a good example. Bernard Morrison is a Manchester businessman with three season tickets and an enthusiasm for United matched only by that of Benjamin, his eight-year-old son. Benjamin's United gear includes the red-and-white kit, the black kit, two goalie tops, two scarves, a cap, a bobble hat, a photograph of Peter Schmei

chel, posters all over his bedroom walls, stationery, and a calendar. 'It's a lot of money, but it's worth it,' his mother Madeleine. 'He gets a lot of use out of it all. We're all very into United. The thing about United is, it's not just going to football, it's going to a show.'

And then you ask Benjamin why he likes United, and it's not the crowd or the nice seat or the merchandise he mentions first. 'I like them because they pass the ball,' he says. Don't try telling him he's being exploited.

(Photograph omitted)

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