Europe's biggest soccer team hits the U.S.

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2003

SEATTLE It's not the Redcoats who are coming. This time, it's the Red Devils.

English soccer superpower Manchester United opens a four-game United States tour Tuesday, playing Scottish team Celtic at sold-out Seahawks Stadium. And, yes, the world's biggest sports team has plenty of followers in America.

''It's going to be a fantastic night for the fans who don't get the chance to see Manchester United and Celtic all the time,'' Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson said Monday. ''It should be a good game.''

Soccer, of course, isn't as popular in America as the NFL, baseball or the NBA. It's Manchester United's first U.S. appearance in two decades, but promoters are calling it a historic event because of the squad's worldwide appeal.

Imagine a team with the tradition and finances of the New York Yankees, the Hollywood flash of the Los Angeles Lakers and the love-hate following of the Dallas Cowboys during their ''America's Team'' heyday.

That's Manchester United, and the boys in red are hoping to win more than just what amounts to an exhibition game. The tour is aimed at winning the hearts and wallets of American sports fans.

Manchester United recently signed a 13-year marketing partnership with Nike, along with the team's four-year run with Pepsi and a one-year deal with brewing giant Anheuser Busch.

''We're starting to see a growing relationship with U.S. businesses, part of aligning ourselves with top global brands,'' said Peter Kenyon, Manchester United's chief executive.

After arriving in Seattle, Kenyon noticed some schoolchildren wearing his team's jerseys.

''We'd sure like to see some more,'' he said.

Manchester United also has games against Club America in Los Angeles on Sunday; Juventus in East Rutherford, N.J., on July 31; and Barcelona in Philadelphia on Aug. 3.

Celtic will play the CA Boca Juniors Friday in Cleveland. The only other U.S. game in the Champions World tour is AC Milan against Barcelona in Washington, D.C., on July 30.

The Seattle contest won't have one of its biggest attractions. Manchester United last month sent superstar David Beckham, who has often been compared to Michael Jordan, to Real Madrid for $39.4 million.

Still, both sides promise to put on a good show.

''We are definitely going to try to win,'' Celtic coach Martin O'Neill said. ''There's no point in coming this far and doing otherwise, considering the number of people who are coming to enjoy the game.''

Ferguson said: ''It's an unusual game for Manchester United and Celtic to play this far away from their home countries, but nothing changes. Celtic plays to win, and it makes a fantastic prospect from their point of view.''

Kenyon sees the U.S. tour not only as an opportunity to expand Manchester United's fan base and market reach, but also as a way to reward the 4 million devoted fans in America who watch their games via satellite.

''As a percentage of the total population, it's rather small,'' he said. ''But there's no business that can ignore a block of 4 million customers. Part of this tour is to connect with them. They are very, very loyal and knowledgeable.''



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