Manchester United banking on selling experience to China with deal for Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang centres

  • Three new ‘fan centres’ to be built by 2020 with Chinese firm Harves
  • Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang will host entertainment and experience centres
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 3:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 3:59pm

Manchester United’s European rivals will no doubt be watching closely to see how three entertainment and experience centres being built in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang by 2020 fare in the coming years.

The 20-time English champions, in partnership with Chinese real estate group Harves, have struck a deal thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds.

The club declined to specify the length of the contract, but five- to ten-year deals are commonplace in the industry.

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The English club want fans to watch games in these centres and for them to become leisure destinations in their own right.

According to Kantar research, Manchester United are the most popular football club in China with 107 million followers. That may raise eyebrows among supporters who noted that their 2016 game in the country was played in a half-empty stadium in Shanghai, but the club has previously drawn sell-out crowds in China and there is significant interest there.

They are also likely to play a pre-season game in the country in 2019.

“The entertainment centres will offer a place (for fans) to go and have that shared experience,” explains Manchester United’s managing director Richard Arnold.

“So much about supporting Manchester United is about togetherness – togetherness of the fans and togetherness of the team. Having a location where everyone goes is really important,” he added.

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“The technology and what that offers and how it operates in terms of providing an authentically engaging sense of what it’s like to be at Old Trafford or at the game is going to be interesting. And the chance to do things as a family, to eat or shop together, is exciting.”

United, the most followed club on Sina Weibo with 9.3 million followers and the most engaging on WeChat, will move quickly.

“One of the things that is most exciting about this opportunity and the scale brought to us by Harves is the ability to go beyond the cities that everyone in the UK can name (in China) and into so many cities across China to make sure that we can bring this experience to as many fans as possible,” Arnold said.

“China is a huge part of our family of fans around the world and it’s a natural progression for us that China would be the first place to have an experience replicating what we have at the stadium and the training ground.”

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The venues will feature interactive and immersive experiences, using state-of-the-art technology to bring Manchester United to life.

Fans can learn about the history and heritage of English football’s most successful club.

The venues will also feature a Red Cafe restaurant and Megastore.

The club first played in the region in 1975, with a friendly game against Hong Kong Rangers, watched by 12,759 at Hong Kong Stadium. A second game in Hong Kong in 1984, against the now-defunct Bulova, followed, this time watched by a 28,485-strong crowd.

Manchester United played in Japan for the first time in 1989, before games in Hong Kong and Japan in 1997.

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In 1996, they became the first European football club to have a dedicated office in Hong Kong as it looked to expand its merchandise and commercial operation. The idea came from executive Edward Freedman, the man also behind the marketing of British pop sensations the Spice Girls.

A first trip to these China mainland followed in 1999 when a full house saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham score in a 2-0 win against Shenhua in Shanghai.

A game in Beijing in 2016 was set to be the first Manchester derby held outside England, but was postponed the day before following concerns about the state of the pitch following a torrential downpour.

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Jose Mourinho didn’t want his side to visit China in 2016 and complained about the weather, logistics, heat, pitches and numerous commercial obligations undertaken by the club, but revenues from the club’s booming commercial side helps the three-time European champions compete with the best teams in the world.

The arms race for eyeballs in the globalisation of European football has taken another twist. As usual, Manchester United are at the forefront.