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Manchester United loses a leader, but hopes to maintain a brand

The statue of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson stands in front of the stadium at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England on May 8, 2013, the day that current manager Alex Ferguson announced his resignation.

U.K. soccer team Manchester United is losing its legendary coach. Sir Alex Ferguson has led United since 1986, and racked up 38 titles on the way. “Fergie,” as he's known, announced today he'll step down at the end of this season.

Even non-soccer fans have heard of Man U. What you may not know is that it's a publicly traded company worth more than $3 billion in market value.

“United is simply a commercial phenomenon,” says Kevin Roberts, editorial director at Sport Business International, a publishing and marketing company in London.

Ferguson took an already legendary team and turned it into a global powerhouse. Not only does the club regularly sell out the largest stadium in England, it rakes in billions of dollars in broadcast rights and sponsorships internationally.

Man U has teamed up with banks and mobile companies eager to associate with its brand -- from Sweden to Vietnam, says Roberts.

“They have found new ways of raising revenue, of developing international markets,” he says, “But none of that counts for anything if a team isn’t winning on the field.”

And win they have, with 13 Premier League titles among many victories. When the company debuted on the New York Stock Exchange last year, the prospectus warned investors not to expect the same results under different management.

The coach clearly matters to the brand, says Rory Miller, who teaches in the football industry MBA program at Liverpool University, “but I think it’s the collection of players and the results that they get on the pitch that is more important than the coach.”

Man United has proven before that its brand is stronger than one man. After legendary coach Matt Busby quit in 1969, several successors failed to recapture the glory. At one point the club was relegated to Division 2, but United came back and now dominates the Premier League.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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