United agree pioneering deal with Hong Kong telecoms giant

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The Independent Online

Manchester United have offered the first glimpse of how they intend to maximise their massive global potential. It was always felt that the owners, the Glazer family, had a grand plan when they completed their controversial takeover of the club in 2005.

The initial feeling was that it might involve finding a way to smash the central bargaining concept which underpins the Premier League's TV rights deals. Those theories were quickly dismissed by the American owners, who feel there has to be some element of competition within the league for it to retain its status as the most valuable domestic league on the planet.

However, in announcing an integrated media deal with the Hong Kong-based telecommunications giant PCCW, United have created the first in a possible long line of potentially very lucrative regional partnerships.

Within Hong Kong, PCCW will broadcast the club's television channel, MUTV, in addition to making content available online, through mobile phones and its EYE2 portable media centre. It means, for instance, that supporters will have access to Sir Alex Ferguson's weekly press conference at 12pm UK time, barely two hours after it has concluded.

With reserve-team games, pre-match Premier League build-up as well as post-match phone-ins, it is the nearest fans are likely to come to the club without access to the actual matches themselves. Every country presents different challenges but as United's commercial director, Richard Arnold, admits, if the club's strategy can work in Hong Kong, the template can be used in far more populous – and wealthier – parts of the world, which opens up untold possibilities.

"We continue to support the collective bargaining because it makes the Premier League incredibly competitive," Arnold said yesterday. "But there are other rights that centre around the club and players, where our access is not paralleled anywhere else. It would be very surprising not to put into place something that allowed you to communicate with fans all over the world."

Arnold bristles slightly when it is suggested that the huge number of fans United claim to have – 193 million in Asia – is rather stretching a point. A fan can be many things to many people. His argument is that the loyalty of a supporter in the Far East or the United States, where the Red Devils toured last summer and where they are set to return next year, who has to watch his favourite team at all hours of the night, is as strong as the traditional fan from Stretford.

"It is very emotive when you start to measure what constitutes a fan," said Arnold. "The people who never miss a game are easily measured. How do you compare that with someone in Hong Kong, who is staying up until 4am to watch Manchester United play? The point is, no matter where you are, now it is a lot easier to get a lot more of what you want.

"Already Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Bebe are household names around the world, despite having such minimal exposure with the club. Using media to reach the people who either can't afford, or aren't able, to travel to the stadium, can be connected to the club."

In the Far East and the United States that is clearly through hi-tech media. In parts of Africa, United have found radio is still the best method of communication. "We have to adopt something sensible in each market," said Arnold.

"Is this the road paved with gold? Put it this way, a football club has three sources of income; ticketing, sponsorship and media. Media has become the lion's share of that cake through collective bargaining. But the element left over could also be very significant."

Meanwhile, Ryan Giggs has been warned against trying to play on with United and take up the Wales manager's job, with which the 36-year-old winger has been linked.

Eric Harrison, the man responsible for bringing Giggs through the Old Trafford ranks as part of the famed "Class of '92", has warned the Welsh midfielder that if he ends up being installed as his country's new manager, he would have to end his stellar career at Old Trafford.

Giggs' United team-mate Mark Hughes managed to play on with Blackburn Rovers after taking up the Wales managerial post, with Harrison acting as a key member of his back-up team.

However, Harrison does not believe it would be possible for Giggs to combine duties at a club like United. "It is not a cushy little number and it is not a part-time post," he said.

"You are at the sharp end of things and these days I don't believe you could combine playing for a club at United's level and managing an international team. When I was with Mark we'd be jetting off all over the place watching future opponents. Then you would be going up and down the country checking on your players.

"You couldn't be playing for United at the weekend and be wondering and worrying about how the Welsh players are doing. If the vacancy does come up and Ryan is approached, then he has a massive decision to make."

Giggs extended his record of scoring in every season since the creation of the Premier League with a volley against Newcastle last month and he was an influential figure in the subsequent 3-0 victory over West Ham. Ferguson recently suggested that the Cardiff-born midfielder could continue playing until he was 40, such are his fitness levels.

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