Man United comms director: ‘Football will get bigger as the planet gets smaller’ (videos)

22 Nov 2013

Manchester United communications director Phil Townsend delivers his keynote speech at the Irish Data Forum in Dublin. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

Manchester United is investing heavily in its data assets both on and off the pitch. The club has a database of 32m supporters worldwide and some 36.7m Facebook followers, its communications director Phil Townsend told the Irish Data Forum in Dublin today.

Townsend gave a fascinating insight into the communications machine that operates on behalf of the unlikely global phenomenon worth US$500m located on the edge of an industrial estate in Manchester.

Describing the impact of the football club he said: “It dominates the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world and contributes to the local economy in terms of bars, hotels, transport.

“If you were to sum up the essence of the club – it is about innovation, the ability to do things before anybody else; youth in terms of an environment that allows young people to express their talents; and passion.”

He said sport today creates linkages “from the poorest plains of Africa where the poorest communities kick footballs made of rags … football includes the excluded in ways that politicians can only dream of.”

He said the media powerhouse that Manchester United has become involves careful strategy and ultimately solid data based on thorough research.

“We know that football is the global game. The World Cup is watched by three times the number of people who watch Grand Prix. Within football, Manchester with 60 games over 10 months is the biggest draw outside of the World Cup.”

He said that unlike other markets when the recession hit, sponsorship didn’t implode for the club and if anything “there was a flight towards quality.”

Townsend said that data is the oil on which Man U’s communications machine runs. “We believe that greater insight drives performance.”

Over the course of a season, Man United games are shown across 1.1bn households worldwide.

From Stretford to Shanghai, Man U’s fanbase is growing

Citing figures from Kantar, the football club has 659m followers worldwide, consisting of 90m in Europe, 34m in North America, 173m in the Middle East, 37m in South America, and 325m fans across Asia. “Asia has a character of its own when it comes to football and Manchester United,” Townsend said.

“Make no mistake, soccer is growing very fast in the US.

“We can only undertake a major tour every year, but it’s our strategy to bring Man U as close to fans as possible. From Stretford to Shanghai – our focus is on opening up channels.”

He said that as a company employing 800 people, the objective is to be able to communicate with fans within seconds. “The explosion in communications and media has made the world a smaller place. As a club we see no prospect of that changing – football will get bigger as the world gets smaller.

“We’ve invested heavily in expanding the services of the team to cope – a single point of contact that helps keep an eye on every communication.

“If sport was just about winners and losers it wouldn’t capture the attention of so many ordinary people.”

As part of the communications strategy, the football club has struck deals with mobile telecoms companies all over the world. “It is a benefit to the club of having the certainty of speaking directly with millions of fans. We use the resources at our disposal to create written and visual content and this has helped us to develop our media strategy.”

Townsend said the Manchester United website attracts more than 83m page impressions a month and more than 5m unique visitors a month.

“As a club we can bring content to the hardware and names of 32m known supporters through mobile and TV with exclusive content that raises us above the general noise.

“Whether talking to 36.7m Facebook followers or across tens of thousands of forums, Manchester United is the most talked about sporting property on the planet.”

Townsend said every article written on the Man United homepage translates into a further 300 articles in mainstream media and 10,000 social media posts.

“The success of Manchester United is based around its ability to know and understand its key strengths. This is only possible by investing in success both on and off the pitch.

“We’ve put a lot of investment into research – without building up talent in data and analytics we wouldn’t have the research that would help reaffirm our thoughts to give us better clarity and focus.

“With a small communications team we are able to spark ideas from our fans and find out what our customers want. Innovation, youth and passion are the defining facets of Manchester United’s essence.

“Manchester United is one of the UK’s greatest exports and like Manchester itself it has a strong sense of heritage – proud, capable of overcoming adversity, comfortable with itself and knows where it needs to get to.

“The club finds new ways of challenging itself and communication with its fanbase. That’s a challenge we accept.

“It may not be right for other businesses but for us, our fans and our partners there are real benefits – and in the end that’s what a football club should be all about,” Townsend said.

Watch Phil Townsend deliver his keynote address at the Irish Data Forum here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Irish Data Forum 2013 – Keynote speaker Phil Townsend, Manchester United Part 2

More from the Irish Data Forum:

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years