Manchester United in China for the long haul

BEIJING, July 24 - Manchester United must build a long-term relationship with their estimated 71 million fans in China before any significant commercial goals can be achieved, according to commercial director Richard Arnold.

Like many western businesses, top European soccer clubs have flocked to China in the last 10 years, tempted by the opportunities presented by the 1.3 billion population, only to find a much more complicated market than they anticipated.

English champions United arrive in Hangzhou on Saturday to play the final match in their pre-season tour of Asia on Sunday, their fifth game in greater China over the last decade.

Arnold believes United, more than other English side, have particular appeal for the Chinese and the club simply cannot ignore such a huge portion of their estimated 330 million worldwide fanbase.

"I think the further away from the UK you get, the more pronounced is the difference between Manchester United and other teams," he told Reuters in an interview on a recent trip to Beijing.

"That's particularly the case in China, the long history of exciting football, the focus on youth, the culture and traditions that the club has are very appealing to China, which has a very similar approach.

"So there's a huge synergy between the two and that leads to a massive fanbase ... A huge proportion of the Manchester United family are here. It's a very important market to do well. It's one that isn't like other countries, it's very special."

China has presented singular problems to foreign clubs trying to generate income as they would in other markets.

Replica shirts, for example, are still far too expensive for a majority of Chinese fans with the proliferation of fakes offering a much cheaper alternative.


United have had setbacks.

Two "Red Cafe" restaurant-bars, a joint venture with Singapore's Manchester United Food & Beverage (Asia) Pte Ltd, opened in Chengdu in 2003 but have since closed down and there are now none in China.

Arnold was in Beijing for the launch of a five-year deal with Chinese company Aigo, who will make and distribute co-branded digital cameras, multimedia players and data storage devices for United globally, and mobile phone handsets in China.

Such partnerships were key to United's future success in China, Arnold said, and the length of the deal reflected the club's long-term thinking.

"My experience of business in China is that it needs a very long and strategic approach and consequently the progressive step and key and the first step is the right partner," he said.

"We think Aigo is the right partner, and we can reach out and touch fans and build a lasting bond with them. After that, who knows?"

Arnold bridles at the suggestion that the club's fans should be viewed simply as potential customers.

"The use of the word 'market' does a little bit of a disservice to the fans," he said. "

The important thing is to establish and build a relationship with the fans and until you've done that, to have any commercial goals at all is extremely ambitious."

One problem for English clubs in