Since Alex Ferguson resigned as Manchester United’s manager he has been credited with everything from reversing the recession to single-handedly putting Manchester itself on the global map.
One person whose life he did have an enormous impact upon was a certain David Robert Joseph Beckham, OBE, who fittingly chose to retire yesterday. From the age of 14 the boy who would become the biggest name in football was associated with United – and the realm that Sir Alex would dominate.
Together they have left an indelible mark on Manchester. But when Beckham and Ferguson arrived, Merseyside ruled the football pitch in much the same way as Manchester now does.
That difference in subsequent years was the Premier League and its huge broadcasting revenues and genuinely global reach Manchester achieved for its profile through football and its associated personalities.
In the mid-Eighties Manchester United was a largely un-leveraged brand. The “Munich” factor had generated a global awareness of this previously regional football club but hitherto that brand had never been truly commercialised.
When the Premier League began in the 1992/93 season, Ferguson had been in post for nearly 6 years and had done a magnificent job of reconnecting the United product with the United brand of youth and exuberance originally established in the reign of Matt Busby and his “Busby Babes”. Then United won the first Premier League championship.
With their support, global awareness and the newly arrived financial injections of broadcasting cash, United were in the perfect position to take a competitive stranglehold on English football. And they did. Simultaneously, Sky was now broadcasting the world’s most popular sport. Together they had access to every market in the world and riding on the back of that access was the city of Manchester itself. Where Merseyside’s tourist bait was the Beatles, Manchester had the United of Ferguson, and then Beckham.
By 2008, Manchester City was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group and instantaneously became one of the richest clubs in the world. Would the Abu Dhabi United Group have considered Manchester City without the Manchester effect created by United? Unlikely.
Would they, for example, have considered purchasing the 1986/87 champions and runners-up, Everton and Liverpool? Doubtful. Neither of those two clubs had the new stadium they craved but City were ensconced in the newly designed City of Manchester Stadium (now the Etihad Stadium) for which City had only been required to provide less than half of the £42m restructuring costs of converting the stadium from its Commonwealth Games usage. Bit by bit Manchester was becoming associated with all things sporting and cool. Manchester is now genuinely Britain’s second city.
In a recent research report published by the Sport Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University and Cambridge Econometrics it was estimated that football contributes in the region of £330m in gross value added (GVA) to Greater Manchester’s economy. According to the report, the global profile that Manchester receives from football is worth over £100m a year on an advertising-equivalency basis.
If everything continues as it is for the next 20 years this could be worth in excess of £2.5 billion to Manchester’s economy. What is clear is that the profile of the Premier League and its two leading clubs provide large football-related revenue for the local economy. Hotel occupancy rates, and prices, for example, are up by an average of 10% – 15% on match days.
Not only are there such direct benefits but also football raises the global recognition of the city, attracting not only visiting football fans, but also investors and skilled workers from sectors far wider than sport alone. As Professor Simon Shibli, co-head of the Sports Industry Research Centre, explained, “[Football] contributes immensely to the city’s financial, cultural and social capitals.”
Other real beneficiaries of the football effect are the city’s universities. The number of students attracted to Manchester as a consequence of football has yet to be quantified but if we look at some research carried out by the Welsh Economy Research Unit at Cardiff University in January 2013 we can make an educated guess. The report states:
Swansea University has seen a record 25% increase in applications for entry in September 2013 [when Swansea City joined the Premier League], 4% higher than the previous record high in 2010, at a time when there are concerns about numbers of applications nationally. The increase is a remarkable achievement in an environment where applications across the UK are currently showing a modest 3.5% rise and a 2% fall nationally in applications from Welsh students.
It is reasonable to assume that if a relative newcomer to the Premier League can show such results then the Manchester effect will be even more striking. Incidentally, in the 1986/87 season Swansea City and Cardiff City were respectively 13th and 14th in the old fourth division.
Manchester itself has also become a magnet for media and sports related industries a fact which, according to the report, made it obvious to relocate BBC Sport with the wider move of the BBC to MediaCityUK, even at a time when the Olympics were due to be hosted by London. These two industries, sport and media, as sub-sets of the leisure industry, are the only industries that economists generally agree are guaranteed to grow over the next two decades.
The time of Sir Alex time may be over and Beckham departed for foreign shores years ago. But their brands remain burnished on Manchester.