Sponsors milk their cash cow on pre-season tour of China
vice-president of Gulf Oil, introduces Rooney to his product
They were here to see Wayne Rooney, but with the Manchester United captain and his team-mates delayed by two hours of passport checks at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, the replica-shirt wearing audience inside one of the grand function rooms at the club’s team hotel in the city had to make do – initially – with Frank Rutten, the vice-president of Gulf Oil.
“Manchester United play unbelievably good football,” Rutten said, through a translator, to his bemused audience. “But Gulf make unbelievably good oil.”
It was one of those events, where ‘slick’ could be perceived two ways by an oil man, but in the cash-rich world of Manchester United’s pre-season tours, it is a necessary evil – the time of year when the club’s many financial backers claim their pound of flesh.
United’s chartered flight from Manchester – provided by Aeroflot, the official carrier of Manchester United – touched down in Shanghai just after 10.40am local time, but stringent passport and visa checks caused havoc with the team’s scrupulously planned schedule to the extent that Rooney and co. were forced to race from the airport and head straight into the commercial circus that now accompanies these tours.
First stop for Jose Mourinho’s squad – the whole squad – was the Shanghai launch of Chevrolet’s new car, followed by events with Gulf Oil, Casillero del Diablo (official wine partner) and Uni President, the Taiwan-based food company.
On their way into the city, Mourinho and his players would have noted the billboards carrying the images of Rooney, Daley Blind and Memphis Depay alongside Chevrolet’s new vehicle, while once inside the hotel, the specially-designed red oil barrels, once again bearing Rooney’s image, were impossible to avoid.
Phil Clement, the global chief marketing and communications officer of Aon, United’s long-standing sponsors, was also in town for what resembled a business exposition rather than the two-game tour of an English football team.
United’s senior players have privately voiced their exasperation at the demands imposed by the club’s paymasters on numerous occasions – many would argue that the vast sums of money help pay their six figure weekly wages – but the reality of life on tour is that football does not always come first.
By the time Mourinho was putting his players through their paces in training following the eleven hour flight, local temperatures at 5pm were a punishing 37 degrees.
It will be similarly oppressive on Friday evening when United face Borussia Dortmund at Shanghai Stadium, with conditions in Beijing next Monday, when Manchester City provide the opposition in the Bird’s Nest, likely to be even worse due to the unchecked pollution in China’s capital.
But while Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, regarded trips to China as completely out of sync with a professional football team preparing for a new season, United’s new manager had no choice but to pick up and run with the six-day trip signed off by the Dutchman.
The Far East, and China specifically, matters so much to United’s sponsors that the club simply had to repay their financial backing with a trip to China this summer.
United is a cash cow and a Trojan horse at the same time and the likes of Chevrolet, Aon and Gulf Oil want to milk it for all its worth when the club brings its unique presence to this part of the world.
When United last visited China in the summer of 2012, the club had just signed a mid-level deal with Chevrolet’s parent company, General Motors, and the trip to Shanghai was regarded as nothing more than a high-profile opportunity to launch the partnership in a market regarded as absolutely crucial to the automotive giants.
But Chevrolet were so taken by United’s ability to stop the clocks, and the traffic, in a city of 24 million that they ripped up their initial deal and immediately thrashed out a world record £53m-a-year shirt sponsorship deal with the club.
Aon, an insurance giant barely known outside the United States before signing off an £80m shirt sponsorship deal with United in 2009, saw website hits increase by 150 per cent when they announced their partnership with the club.
Denis Irwin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney field questions
"Manchester United has no equal in sports when it comes to global brand awareness, particularly in Asia,” David Prosperi, Aon’s Global Head of Public Relations said at the time.
“Asia, particularly India and China, are prime targets for revenue growth and being associated with the Manchester United brand will, we believe, help us to greatly build our brand and grow our business in this region."
The trick worked for Aon, with the company moving on to securing naming rights to United’s training centre, while Chevrolet believe that their partnership with the club enables them to break into the Chinese market having ended car production in Europe.
Why do Chevrolet have their names on United’s shirts when they do not even make cars in Europe any more? Because of the club’s pull in China.
It is why United are launching their new home strip in Shanghai this Saturday – new images of Chevrolet’s logo on the red shirt will be seen first in China – and why Mourinho and his players are here.
Rooney, meanwhile, was eventually able to give the United fans what they wanted, and relieve the struggling Rutten, by making his way to the Grand Pudong Suite to participate in a fans’ Q&A alongside Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
He was greeted like one of the Beatles, almost blinded by flashbulbs, before answering questions in a ten minute appearance.
And then it was off to a team meeting and training, having ticked a box for United’s sponsors and partners, for another year.