Newsweek - Love Them, Hate Them
February 19, 2001

The Strange Marriage Of Baseball And Football Titans

It was as if long-lost English cousins had come to town. Last week executives from the richest, most successful sports team in the United Kingdom arrived in Manhattan. They bore a striking resemblance to their swaggering Yankee hosts, who introduced them to the befuddled New York media as if American baseball and European football were two branches of one Anglo-Saxon sports family. Manchester United, the legendary English football club--and the only one with a star married to a Spice Girl--announced a joint-marketing deal with the parent company of the storied New York Yankees--the only team with a star dating a Miss Universe.

For a moment, it all seemed to make sense. These teams are the perennial champs of their respective national sports--teams that fans either love, or love to hate. To hear the new partners tell it, the union was a no-brainer, the latest chapter in the on- going globalization of sport. ManU, which already has a worldwide following, will help the less well-traveled Bronx Bombers sell T shirts and win converts around the world. In return, the Yankees will help United pry open a U.S. market that has stubbornly refused to embrace the world's No. 1 sport. ManU's marketing director Peter Draper suggested that Americans wouldn't be able to resist his team: "Manchester United is pop meets sport. We're as sexy and glamorous as we can be."

That may be, but most of the excitement was on the Manchester side of the aisle. The "strategic alliance" drew headlines across the United Kingdom. Some fans ranted against ManU's renewed efforts at "world domination," and vowed to dump Yankee caps in the garbage, while others celebrated like missionaries after a baptism. Shares of the publicly traded club soared as high as 247 pence from an opening of 214 on the news.

Americans have been warned before that foreign football is coming. Even the arrival of Pele, the Brazilian great, could not get a professional U.S. league off the ground in the 1970s. The World Cup finals in 1994 created a buzz--that died almost as soon as the last whistle blew. And the big ManU-Yankee deal? "If caller reaction is any indication, no one is paying attention on this side of the pond," said producer Eddie Scozzaro at WFAN, a popular New York sports radio station better known as The Fan.

Still, this is a union of marketing machines. Polls show the Yanks rank just behind the home team (or teams) for fans in every major baseball city in America--testimony at least to name recognition. And the Bombers are booming. In 1999 they merged with (devoured, really) the pathetic New Jersey Nets basketball team, becoming YankeeNets LLC. Then they bought the champion New Jersey Devils hockey team and cut a marketing deal with the New York Giants, who play football in pads. Lately there's been talk the YankeeNets organization might acquire its own network--which could force-feed ManU games to America.

Even ManU loyalists are skeptical. Siamak Emadi, president of ManU's fan club on the West Coast, doubts the deal will work. Emadi arrived from Iran in 1979 and has been trying since to recruit U.S. fans for the team. "None of them are converted," he says. "They claim they don't understand the game."

The Yankees suffer the same ignominy beyond U.S. borders. Even their new partners are a bit shaky on the Yank roster. Asked at the press conference last week to identify the Yankee shortstop, former England captain and United board member Bobby Charlton answered, "I'm not proud to say I don't know." (Hint: Derek Jeter, one of the biggest celebrities in American baseball.) Baseball is way behind basketball and even hockey in selling itself worldwide.

No U.S. team is in the same global sales league as ManU. Roughly 98 percent of their fans reside outside Manchester, including more than 7 million across the United Kingdom and 14 million in Thailand. ManU has sales outlets for its merchandise from Cape Town to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. "They've become a global brand," says John Krimsky, president of YankeeNets, noting that ManU has found a way to "fill the void" of professional sports heroes in Asia. "They connect in ways we need to emulate." Can America's pastime truly connect with the world's favorite sport? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.