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United under Ferguson: Manchester's mass appeal in Asia

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
May 9, 2013 -- Updated 0544 GMT (1344 HKT)
Chinese soccer fans are held back by security guards outside Manchester United's team hotel in Beijing in 2005.
Chinese soccer fans are held back by security guards outside Manchester United's team hotel in Beijing in 2005.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United has become hugely popular globally
  • Recent survey reveals United has 325 million fans in Asia alone
  • English champions regularly play in lucrative pre-season Asia tours
  • Journalist: "The one thing Asian football fans value above anything else is winning"

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Hong Kong (CNN) -- The news that Alex Ferguson is stepping down as Manchester United manager after 26 trophy-laden seasons will be reverberating far beyond British shores Wednesday, and no more so than in Asia where the club has a huge following.

To put this in perspective, a study recently commissioned by the newly-crowned English Premier League champions showed that the team's global fan base had doubled to 659 million people between 2007 and 2012 -- with 325 million fans from Asia alone.

READ: End of an era as 'Fergie' resigns

The figures are staggering, though the number of Manchester United shirts -- official merchandise or not -- that can be seen around the streets of any major city in the region, from Bangkok to Shanghai, goes some way towards illustrating this phenomenal interest.

Social interest

Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced he will retire at the end of the English Premier League season. Ferguson has managed the team for 26 years, making him the longest-serving manager in Premier League history. Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced he will retire at the end of the English Premier League season. Ferguson has managed the team for 26 years, making him the longest-serving manager in Premier League history.
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And the interest goes beyond simply wearing a replica shirt. Within minutes of the shock announcement, football fans in China flocked to Weibo, the country's version of Twitter, to lament Ferguson's departure.

"Farewell Fergie," posted one netizen, known as @HuxuanzheChuckHoo. "Sir Alex Forever!" declared @Yesmanduomehao.

Another, known as @Drshankui, said: "Although I don't really like Manchester and their red polo shirts, I have to say Ferguson is one of the most respected coaches. Now that he's going to retire soon, I felt really sad. I want to thank him for bringing all the splendidness to the team!"

Wednesday's news also found its way into the mainstream media in China, including 163.com, one of the country's most popular news platforms.

Lucrative

United has not been slow to recognize the benefits of this global appeal, regularly taking part in lucrative pre-season tours at packed venues across Asia to connect with local fans. In July, the team will visit Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Australia.

The club has also signed a number of sponsorship deals with "Asian partners," including banks in Vietnam and a Japanese social gaming company -- though this Asian "sweet spot" has also been clear in the minds of sponsors beyond the region.

READ: United buoyed by sponsorship deals

"We've gone from no brand awareness in countries like Japan and South Korea to incredible brand awareness," Phil Clement, chief marketing officer at Aon, told the Financial Times when explaining the U.S. insurance giant's decision to put pen to paper on a $23 million sponsorship deal earlier this year.

United even explored the idea of an Asian stock market floatation in either Hong Kong or Singapore last year, as it eyed investors -- though market volatility at the time put these plans on hold.

Winning habit

So why is the club so popular in Asia?

Title after title, the Champions League twice, global megastars such as Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo ... all these ingredients have made United's football brand Asia's best-loved
James Porteous, South China Morning Post

The reason is fairly straightforward, according to James Porteous, a sports journalist at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

"The one thing Asian football fans value above anything else is winning, and under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have simply been one of the most successful clubs in the world. Liverpool have a big following in Asia because of their great history, but that's taken a dent given their recent trophy-starved years.

"While newer champions such as Chelsea and Manchester City have been on the rise, United have had a consistent record of success under Ferguson, gaining new fans in Asia with every trophy won over the last two decades.

"United's history also gives them great glamor and prestige, from the great names of the 1960s and the tragedy of the Busby Babes, and that is also attractive to fans in the region. But most of their popularity is down to their triumphs in the last 20 years under Ferguson. Title after title, the Champions League twice, global megastars such as Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo ... all these ingredients have made United's football brand Asia's best-loved."

United has also invested wisely in talented Asian players, most recently signing Japan's brightest talent, Shinji Kagawa. The attacking midfielder follows in the footsteps of South Korean star Park Ji-Sung, who spent seven hugely successful years at the club.

The result is United's appeal borders on the fanatical at times.

When the club announced plans to play in Hong Kong this year, its first visit to the city since 2005, tickets for the friendly against a local club sold out almost instantly. Porteous said former United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was mobbed by fans when he arrived at Hong Kong airport to promote the game, and again by local journalists at a press conference -- despite leaving the club in 1999.

"The reception I've had in only a couple of hours is incredible," Schmeichel told journalists at the time.

"No doubt the club's vast marketing arm will have many plans to maintain this popularity in Asia," said Porteous. "But the key factor is simple: whoever the new manager is, he'll have to keep winning trophies."

CNN's Feng Ke in Beijing contributed to this report.

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