At the first two friendlies on their 18-day tour of North America, Manchester United played to crowds of 40,000 in Toronto and Philadelphia. A couple of productive days at the turnstiles, one might suggest, but what apparently caught the attention of club officials were the 20,000 seats at each venue which were not occupied.
United's public relations machine then kicked into action and the club made players available for interviews with the American media. The charm offensive worked wonders, with crowds growing game on game, resulting in an incredible 70,000 sell-out crowd for a match against the MLS All-Stars in Houston. The club-inspired cause-and-effect seemed only to emphasise United's place as the gold standard of global sport marketing, a status continually on display during the five-match, six-city tour which included a game in Guadalajara, Mexico.
United took advantage of the sojourn to unveil their new home kit, revel in acclamations of their worldwide appeal and position themselves as marketing dynamos that even the wealthiest US clubs would like to emulate. Forbes business magazine recently listed United as the most valuable sports franchise in the world, worth US$1.87 billion (Dh6.87bn), ahead of such money-making American teams as the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Yankees.
Talk of figures and franchises would be met by cynicism on the streets of Manchester, but the numbers impress in America. "Manchester United," said a prominent sports marketing executive in Connecticut, "is what the Yankees wish they were." He outlined the club's popularity with a story about how he was once in a Cape Town Nike store hoping to buy a South Africa rugby union jersey. To his dismay, he found that the store sold three shirts: Manchester United's home, away and third kit.
United began their assault on the American market in 2003 with a series of sell-out games in major cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Key sponsors were based there and a public conditioned to high ticket prices and brazen merchandising were prepared to pay hefty match fees. United returned a year later, alongside several other English and European giants, but then their usual promoters went bust and America was off limits until this year.
They returned to rave reviews. "Manchester United are undoubtedly the most popular, the most recognised and best supported foreign team in the United States," said Sean Wheelock, the BBC's North America football correspondent. "To attract 70,000 for a friendly game when the team are missing a lot of their stars is phenomenal." Illustrating their commercial acumen, United launched their new red home strip in Chicago - home of their new shirt sponsors, AON - a global reinsurance intermediary.
Nike made sure that these home shirts were on sale in all the cities where United played - a concerted push to raise the profile of United and football in the world's richest market. The players were rolled out for the cameras and a cast from the club's illustrious past, from Sir Bobby Charlton to Bryan Robson, were present to glad-hand any interested Americans. The players had no complaints about being paid to spend their leisure time lounging around a swimming pool in the height of summer.
In a process not dissimilar to that for an Olympic bid, United followed the money. Rival cities put their bids in and made their offers of appearance fees to bring Manchester United to town. To justify the fees, each city would have to charge top dollar (between $30 and $200) for tickets and promote the visit extensively. Giant billboards all over Kansas City or Houston advertised the forthcoming United game, with a link to a Ticketmaster number.
The gamble paid off for all the cities and Kansas City - the riskiest of all as it is not usually on the list of cities for big football friendlies - attracted a record midwest crowd of 52,000 to see the Kansas City Wizards beat United 2-1. United's match fees are thought to start at £500,000 (Dh2.9m). Travel is taken care of thanks to the club's commercial link with Turkish Airlines, who provide a new 777 plane with business-class seats for wherever United fly. Barcelona have the same deal and Turkish Airlines revel in the publicity.
The players were kept occupied. While they had time to distract themselves with their MP3 players or a blizzard of text messages, time to play computer consoles against each other and watch DVDs, they also saw some of the tourist sites - the type which appeal to a group of young men. The whole touring party walked up the steps to the Philadelphia Art museum, a famous location used in the Rocky films. In Houston they visited the space centre - all of them resplendent in the latest Nike casual wear. Commercial choreography was prevalent at all times as United seized opportunities to build their massive brand.
United's huge staff - the kitmen and physios and coaches - also enjoyed the tour. They are not on the huge salaries of the players and would not otherwise be able to traverse across North America staying in five-star hotels. The trip was good for bonding and morale. Some commentators did adopt an untypically American and cynical view, with one describing United as a "bloated sports franchise that was too big for its own good". But the majority were won over. United's owners are Americans, too, and the Glazer family were spotted in several cities, where they receive a very different welcome to the hostile one they get in England.
The biggest potential problem for United was the absence of any of their World Cup stars (who were allowed some time off) and injured players such as Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves. A United without Wayne Rooney would not win the Premier League, but the club still had enough stars in the travelling party to woo the crowds. Javier Hernandez, their new Mexican striker, may have received a huge cheer from the thousands of Hispanics in the crowd in Houston, but that paled compared to the one which greeted the introduction of Paul Scholes, the evergreen midfielder.
Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, Edwin van der Sar, Darren Fletcher and Nani are all known to an increasingly savvy US football public. United justified the hype too by hammering the MLS All-Stars team 5-2. Football is doing very well across the Atlantic, with more boys and girls playing it than any other sport. Major League Soccer is now well established and new "soccer specific" stadiums with around 25,000 seats are being built across the country.
United's stars also enjoyed a degree of anonymity many found refreshing. That includes the manager. Sir Alex Ferguson could have been just another pensioner in a tracksuit as he walked around downtown Kansas City. He concedes that he enjoys the anonymity which America affords. He owns an apartment on New York's posh Fifth Avenue where he stays with his wife whenever United have a break in fixtures. His players love the US, too.
"I'm into American culture," enthused Fletcher, the Scotland midfielder. "The music, the sport, the cities, the magazines. I often come here with my family." The anonymity? "Of course, but I'm not Wayne Rooney. I can walk around a shopping centre in Manchester unrecognised if I'm wearing a cap. But I like playing pre-season games in America because the training facilities are so good - as are the stadiums. "The opponents are always really competitive too." And, all but forgotten in the corporate brouhaha, but not by the man at the helm, were the benefits to United's next football campaign. "These tours are all about fitness," said Ferguson, issuing a salutary reminder to everyone of his priorities in crossing the Atlantic. @Email:email@example.com