How Manchester United's #ILOVEUNITED events are wooing sponsors and fans globally

India has become a hotspot for football with major football clubs targeting its marketing potential. Recently, Manchester City boss Ferran Soriano was in India to talk about future investments/partnership with Indian brands. While other football clubs like Liverpool FC, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid among others have made their presence felt in India through partnerships and events.

Leading the count of the most number of fans in India is Manchester United Football Club, with a fan base of 35 million. Manchester United's #ILOVEUNITED event in India has gained quite prominence among fans as well. United's ambassador, Denis Irwin and club legend and former striker, Louis Saha returned to India, having previously represented the club in February 2016 for this season's #ILOVEUNITED which took place in Mumbai on 20th January.

The Drum spoke with Sean Jefferson, director of partnerships for United, the world’s most valuable soccer team, worth $3.69bn according to Forbes, to find out the marketing strategy behind the event.

He says: "We are proud to have a global following of 659m fans and we feel it is important to take the club to the fans as often as we can. We do this every minute of every day through our media platforms,with our latest figures showing we receive 147m connections across all social media platforms, including, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Sina Weibo and Line,as well as also stage these physical events which allow our fans to engage with the club.

"Our partners are fully integrated into the international strategy and we work closely with them to select cities, venues, and activations which work for them and our fans. We want to recognise and reward the loyal support we receive from our fans, some of whom will never have the chance to visit Manchester, by bringing a little bit of the United dream to them."

"The last fan party we hosted in Mumbai during the 16/17 season saw over 4,000 fans attend the event, creating an unbelievable atmosphere. Watching a match with that many of your fellow supporters is enthralling and helps recreate the atmosphere of Old Trafford."

United's Indian partners include Apollo Tyres and HCL. Earlier, Chevrolet did a lot of sponsorship activation too, but General Motors' India departure last year has 'limited' its engagement in India. Meanwhile, Gulf, Adidas and Apollo have intensified Manchester United's promotion in India with OOH marketing.

#ILOVEUNITED has already covered three locations covered this season, which includes Shanghai, New York and Mumbai. As to how the sponsors are supporting the #ILOVEUNITED events, Jefferson says: "We have had over 20,000 applicants for tickets, filling each venue to capacity. In Shanghai and New York the club hosted over 3,000 fans between them and we are expecting a full house again this weekend, with almost 10,000 fans applying for tickets for a 3,000 capacity venue, demonstrating the demand for attendance at these kinds of events. We have worked with over 29 sponsors across each location and this weekend’s Indian leg of #ILOVEUNTIED is being supported by Adidas, Aeroflot, Apollo, Concha y Toro, Epson, Gulf, HCL, TAG Heuer and Uber."

The sponsors activated around the event are also offering guests various opportunities to engage with the legends and the club, such as competitions, giveaways, VIP discounts or options to purchase exclusive products.

Fifa U-17 World Cup, which took place last year and India's own football league Indian Super League (ISL), has generated a lot of brand interest in football. However, The Drum recently spoke with ISL team Delhi Dynamos Football Club's (DDFC) marketing head Priyanshu Pande who said that the sponsorship investments are grossly undervalued by brands underestimating ISL.

Whether United plans to include any more sponsors from India, Jefferson says: "With India being such an important market for the club, we are always looking at further partnership opportunities. A number of our global partners are either headquartered in India, or have India as a very high priority market. We have close to 35m followers in India, which is a huge audience for any partner. However, it has to be the right partnership with the right company - ones who can enhance the offering we give to our fans as well as complement the club and its reputation at the pinnacle of world football."

United has already opened Soccer Schools in Mumbai and further intensified its investment in China and in October last year, signing a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia that will see the club help the Kingdom's General Sports Authority to create a sustainable and thriving football sector.

According to Jefferson, the club's overall strategy is to continue to grow its fan base, to deepen engagement with the fans, and to help the current and future sponsors derive value from the partnerships.

He says: "We will continue to grow the commercial side of our business and see our long-standing, loyal and expanding family of fans in the region as being key to our success. We will also further develop our retail, merchandising, apparel and product licensing business, exploit new media and content opportunities and enhance the reach and distribution of our broadcasting rights."

As to what is the club's APAC strategy, he says: "The opportunities to engage with our huge family of fans means that there is significant potential in the region and the continued growth of business in this area makes it an attractive area in which to operate. The club has had an office in Hong Kong for the last four years, providing a central hub for partners within APAC, employing staff who speak the languages, know and understand the different cultures and importantly who are in the same time zone.This has allowed the club to develop further its business interests within the region. As I think with most international companies these days, the region as a whole and the individual countries within, it remain an important key market for the club."

Jefferson however, thinks that football has yet to become a brand in APAC. He says: "The sport has always been popular in APAC, more so in some countries than others, but I think the global appeal of the sport has increased. Manchester United alone has well over 300m followers in the APAC, which demonstrates the power and reach of football in the region. It used to be that if you travelled away from home you had to try and find a sports bar in whatever city you were in, that was showing the game."

"These days, not only is the game readily available with host broadcasters buying into the Premier League, which has a yearly broadcasting value of $3.7bn, but it is also just as easy to legally watch online or through various different devices making the game more accessible to global fans."