Manchester United boast one of the best training facilities in world football, with sophisticated medical wings and sport science units, 14 pitches, indoor running tracks and swimming pools.
Neighbours Manchester City’s newer model is considered even better, with its 6,000 capacity stadium for reserve and women’s football. Barcelona are also building a new stadium at their ultra modern facility in San Juan Despi which will bear the name of Johan Cruyff – and free up more expensive land close to Camp Nou for development.
It’s a similar story in Madrid, where the Valdebebas centre is one of the best in Europe. And where are all these clubs today, in the middle of their crucial pre-season training schedules? The United States.
The players would prefer to stay at home, the club staff too, but money talks, as does the desire to conquer new markets and meet new sponsors. Because if United and Barça don’t, then Madrid or City will.
These four giants of world football spend their Julys in California or China, avoiding floods in the east, their players hoping not to be photographed peeking at Emily Ratajkowski’s breasts at a party paid for by Adidas way out west. The German sportswear company have hitched their wagon to the United juggernaut. Adidas have paid such a vast amount to put their logo on the kit that rivals Nike, never slow at coming forward themselves, felt they couldn’t justify such an expense to their shareholders and wondered how they could make a profit on the deal. Adidas are happy with their relationship with United, with shirts emblazoned with “Pogba” now the best sellers, replacing those dedicated to “Ibrahimovic” from last season. And no, United don’t charge by the letter for shirt printing.
City, who’ve long played up a homespun status as the authentic Manchester club, now estimate that only three per cent of their entire fan base lives in the UK. Clubs don’t tend to differentiate between fans who go to matches and those who profess a mere online “liking” when they’re pitching to potential sponsors.
On Thursday evening, United will play City in Houston, Texas. The vast majority of the 70,000 crowd in a city with a strong Hispanic football loving community, will be Texans supporting United.
City were so worried at the ratio of red shirts to blue ones ahead of a planned derby in Beijing a year ago that they planned to give free blue shirts out to lessen the redness. Any potential embarrassment was saved when the game was postponed after the temporary pitch had failed to settle in the Beijing rains.
United refunded some of the few dozen travelling fans who’d made their way independently to China with a signed United jersey and complimentary tickets to a Europa League match. Those hardcore are back in Texas, along with a handful of travelling Blues, fans from a regional city in north west England that has long punched above its demographic.
United will return, albeit reluctantly, to China simply because there’s so much money there. The club are hugely popular in India and Indonesia, but people there will struggle to stump up anything close to the $100 (£77) average ticket price of watching the team in the States – twice the average ticket cost of watching a competitive game at Old Trafford.
The players are currently flying around America on a chartered 747 where every seat is business class, and the players are first to go upstairs. It’s important to mollify the concerns of Jose Mourinho over the impact of prolonged travel as far as possible. And the charter is also needed to carry over 100 United employees, with players backed up by coaches, medical staff, a dozen strong security staff and a substantial group of young marketeers, male and female, in black adidas apparel and trainers and rooms at the Beverly Wilshire. Also on the plane are club legends such as Bryan Robson, Dennis Irwin and Dwight Yorke who work as ambassadors, glad-handing fans and sponsors while the current squad has to get down to the small matter of playing football.
United’s tours are commercially driven and not without critics, but every major football club follows their lead. The sixth best team in England last season are the undoubted commercial trailblazers of the world. Fans would swap that for Real Madrid’s trophies or Barcelona’s football, but the money should – eventually – bring success. It helps the club buy players like Pogba. Although United are now seen as financial heavyweights, at the start of the Premier League era in 1992 the club had to wait for season ticket revenues to come before being able to buy Roy Keane.
By getting the fans onside in the States – and using huge promotional storyboards called “The Greatest Football Story Ever Told” – United want to monetise the converted by getting them to sign up to One United membership schemes. They want more wealthy potential customer and consumer names in a database to appeal to future sponsors, many of whom are based in the US at a club owned by an American family.
United don’t always get it right. An information sharing link up with the New York Yankees, the United of baseball, was wildly overblown and quietly dropped.
But the United commercial officials, many based out of an office in Mayfair rather than Manchester, have been undeniably successful, though the most important official, Ed Woodward, is not even in the US and his manager continues to pressure him publicly to sign new players. Those players are based in Spain, Italy or England, not Sunset, Vine or Wilshire.
United are using the facilities at the UCLA’s sports complex so adored by Mourinho. and the players like LA, the sun and the anonymity. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof are settling well, but after two matches against the reserve sides of MLS teams in LA and Salt Lake, Utah, they’ll get a bigger test on Thursday night in front of 70,000 in Houston, a first ever derby against City outside the UK.