MARK RECHTIN

Chevy's $600 million Manchester United deal turning into a fiasco

COMMENTARY
Mark Rechtin is west coast editor of Automotive News.
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LOS ANGELES -- Chevrolet's controversial $600 million sponsorship deal of English soccer giant Manchester United can't get any worse, can it?

Yes, it can, before it even begins next season.

For decades, Manchester United has been the lord of English soccer, ahem, football. Rooting for Man U is like betting on the New York Yankees. They have loads of championship hardware on the shelf, perennially field a team laden with world-class talent, play in a historic stadium and have been led by a legendary coach. They win with class and style.

In addition to playing in the English Premier League -- the most watched football league in the world, with an estimated weekly reach of 643 million TV households in 212 countries -- Manchester United also plays in the European Champions League tournament, which pits it against other legendary clubs like Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona. That's another 360 million passionate TV households, some of which might not regularly watch the English league games because they prefer the Spanish, German, French or Italian leagues. That's incremental exposure.

Those were the kinds of numbers that attracted then-head of GM marketing Joel Ewanick to connect the Chevrolet brand with the storied English club. Although the $600 million price tag was steep, the opportunity to showcase the Chevy bow tie in front of hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide, several times a week, for a sporting season that's pretty much year-round, seemed too good to pass up.

Never mind that Chevrolet is basically a nonentity in Europe, and that promoting Chevy would clash with GM's existing Opel and Vauxhall brands over there. According to a team survey, Manchester United's fan base is 659 million people, nearly half of whom live in the Asia-Pacific region. That's global exposure in a lot of markets that Chevy wants to plunder.

The deal proved to be Ewanick's undoing, however, as some of the under-reported minutiae of the deal led to his being sacked. But the ink was dry. The Chevy badge was going to be on Man U jerseys starting in fall 2014 through 2021. The price tag was high, but it was worth it, right?

Wrong.

Everything has gone sour at Old Trafford.

At the end of the 2012 season, just as the Chevy deal was completed, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired after leading the club for 27 years and 13 English league titles. His replacement David Moyes -- who had worked miracles keeping underfunded Everton competitive -- was hired to carry the torch for the storied club. Imagine what Moyes could do with real money, backers crowed.

Instead, the 2013 season has been a fiasco, with infighting in the locker room, second-guessing from the bloodthirsty English media, indecision about starting lineups and losses to lesser clubs. Despite a star-studded lineup, Manchester United is on the ropes, currently swooning in a distant seventh place.

"Fergie Time" -- a soccer term denoting a few minutes of added time at the end of games to account for injuries -- used to be when Alex Ferguson's side would notoriously snatch victory at the final whistle. But on Sunday, Man U allowed a last-second tying goal at home to last-place Fulham. Things are that bad.

And here's why it's particularly bad for Chevrolet.

For an English club to qualify for next year's lucrative Champions League against other elite European competition, it has to finish in the top four places in this year's home competition. With the 2013-14 season coming into the home stretch, there are few signs that Man U will pull things together to pass Everton, Tottenham and Liverpool to reach fourth place. A lower finish puts Man U into the Europa League, known as the "poisoned chalice" of European football tournaments.

Not only do most established teams not care about this lesser tournament, neither do fans nor TV viewers. And instead of playing in marketing hotspots like Milan and Paris, Man U will instead be playing in forgotten wastelands like Tromsø, Dnipropetrovsk and Makhachkala. Yes, those are real places.

It's as if the Yankees got demoted to playing AAA ball, playing in Durham and Fresno, but keeping Derek Jeter in the lineup.

To make payroll, Manchester United may have to begin selling its expensive superstars -- who certainly don't want to spend frigid winter nights playing on ankle-twisting turf in Krasnodar or Nicosia. Thus may begin a downward spiral that will evoke the dreaded words "rebuilding cycle."

Just the image Chevrolet wants to evoke for its $600 million.

West Coast Editor Mark Rechtin became a Tottenham Hotspur fan when posted in London in 2001-02.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter


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