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Revisiting the failed New York Yankees-Manchester United partnership

Parts of this article appear in my latest book, Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart. You can grab your copy in paperback or Kindle eBook format here.

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In global sports, the megaclub is a fascinating concept. Indeed, only a handful of teams have transcended the insular industry to earn such a powerful status. Real Madrid springs to mind. The Dallas Cowboys, too. You can make a strong case for the Los Angeles Lakers residing in that illustrious echelon, as well, while Scuderia Ferrari maintains the requisite lustre.

Yet when contemplating true sporting behemoths, all conversations begin with the New York Yankees and Manchester United, two teams that defined the illustrious genre before it became chic. There has long been a scintillating synergy between these transatlantic cousins, and their complicated relationship is worthy of deeper analysis.

As a British fan of football and baseball, I’m intrigued by the influential dynamic between United and New York. I explored the topic in great detail for my latest book – Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart – and I’m keen to share a concise overview here, taking a compelling story to new audiences.

Similarities between Manchester United and the New York Yankees

First and foremost, the New York Yankees and Manchester United are inextricably linked by their thirst for on-field success and off-field commercial domination. Both teams crave superstar talent through which to satisfy that dual purpose; beating opponents with style, lifting trophies as a consequence, then cashing in on the resultant global attention.

The Yankees have won 27 World Series championships, more than double any other Major League Baseball team, while United have been crowned champions of English football on 20 occasions, a figure unsurpassed by any domestic rival.

Every year, the Yankees generate more than $680 million in revenue, whereas United brings in around $780 million. According to Forbes, the Yankees are worth $5 billion, while United would cost $3.8 billion. Around 3.3 million people attend Yankees home games each season, compared to almost 2 million fans watching United. The resemblance is uncanny.

In short, both teams hoard wealth, trophies and fans with greater zeal than any competitor in their respective markets. Those similarities bring the Yankees and Manchester United close together in ethos, outlook and approach. In many ways, they are cut from the same cloth. They are products of the same philosophy. And for a few years either side of the new millennium, that implied mutuality of vision coalesced into a formal partnership for the ages. Two decades hence, we are still decoding the fallout. 

Why Manchester United and the New York Yankees entered a formal partnership in 2001

In 1999, United won the Intercontinental Cup before 53,372 at the National Stadium in Tokyo, a major coup in their plans to generate a loyal Asian fanbase. The club’s red shirts were exceedingly popular in Japan, connoting power, luck and respect at the confluence of traditional cultures. For the club’s marketing department, then, Tokyo was a quick win.

Indeed, with such an evocative brand, United was beloved around the world, but the club traditionally struggled to make an impact in North America, which still had a complicated relationship with soccer as the new century dawned. United set out to change that, seeking a strategic partner to turbocharge its image across the Atlantic. World football’s most famous club sought an American ally, quite simply, and it headed straight to New York for support.

Consumer research experts told United that the Yankees were an obvious choice of stateside mentor. The philosophical symbiosis was immediately apparent to Peter Kenyon, the United chief executive, and he subsequently met Yankee officials, including Harvey Schiller, an ally of legendary owner George Steinbrenner who was tasked with building the YES Network, a proprietary team channel.

Schiller knew that he could learn a lot - operationally, culturally and commercially - from the English football club. After all, when MUTV began broadcasting in 1998, it created a rudimentary blueprint for the YES Network to follow in regional sports broadcasting. United was ahead of the curve in this respect, growing innovative media arms like the tentacles of an octopus, and the Yankees were eager to follow their trail.

Early in his project, Schiller encountered difficulty with Cablevision, which retained the rights to broadcast Yankees games for around $50 million per season. Attempts at ending that arrangement failed, and Schiller knew the importance of strengthening his negotiating position for future battles. The prospect of eventually carrying Manchester United games on the Yankees’ pipedream network was instantly appealing, creating mutual ground for extensive discussions. Things came together quickly, with obvious gains brightening the horizon.

Inside the short-lived collaboration between Manchester United and the New York Yankees

By joining forces, the Yankees and United strengthened their communal position with regard to broadcasting rights. In theory, international television networks would always be interested in showing their respective games, so it made sense to stoke bidding wars by marrying two different sports into one unique product.

While no money was exchanged, Kenyon and Schiller agreed to a marquee alliance of marketing, advertising and media expansion. Yankees merchandise would be sold in England, pushed through United’s supply chain, while United garb would be available in New York, promoted by the Yanks.

Yankee Stadium and Old Trafford would feature logos and slogans of the other partner, respectively, while each club would promote their broadcasts together, pooling resources. United stars David Beckham and Fabien Barthez would be paraded to fans in the Bronx, while Bernie Williams and Orlando Hernández would visit Manchester. Crucially, the Yankees would coordinate a pre-season tour of America for United in the summer of 2003, using their expert knowledge of the market to facilitate growth. It seemed like an ideal fit.

“The Yankees are not just about baseball, and Manchester United is not just about football,” said Kenyon at a press conference announcing the formation of a synthetic superclub. “It is easy to just look at the US and the UK, but this goes beyond that.”

Legendary United player Bobby Charlton attended the media briefing, and in a decidedly awkward encounter, he was asked to identify the Yankees’ shortstop. Of course, Derek Jeter was one of the most famous men in America at that point, sports star or otherwise. Still, Charlton was stumped by the question, morphing into the bumbling personification of languid British arrogance with regard to North American sports.

“I’m not proud to say I don’t know,” stuttered Charlton. “We don’t think Manchester United will produce baseball teams or the Yankees will produce soccer teams. We don’t sell our soul to another sport. This is an alliance of an organisation that is as close to Manchester United as can be.”

The London Stock Exchange reacted positively to the marketing pact, with United’s share price improving by 13.1% at one point following the announcement. “I think this is colossal in terms of sports,” said Barclays stockbroker Julian Buck in a news interview at the time. “It’s the same as bringing together Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the drinks business - it is that big.”

What went wrong with the Yankees-United coalition?

As desired, United did tour America in 2003, playing games in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and New Jersey. It was the first time they had played in the US since 1960. However, beyond that trip, little tangible results were ever derived from the Yankees-United treaty. The tantalising coalition fizzled out under the force of its own potential.

As the Premier League rights holder in the US, Fox refused to allow rebroadcasts of United games on YES once it was finally launched in 2002. Meanwhile, the respective teams seemed to underestimate their own traditionalism before entering such a progressive deal.

In essence, the Yankees and Manchester United were fuelled by hubris. They each believed their own claims to supremacy atop the global sporting ladder, and helping each other in that fight became fatally self-defeating.

When the partnership was announced, the Yankees had 25 World Series titles and annual revenues of $215 million. United had 13 Premier League titles, 2 UEFA Champions League wins and a yearly income of $230 million. In the end, some said they were just too similar. It was like arguing with the mirror.

Between 2003 and 2005, American tycoon Malcolm Glazer bought United for £790 million by gradually hoovering up shares. A divisive figure, Glazer had the rare honour of outspending Steinbrenner in the 1990s when the businessmen filed competing bids for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Glazer paid $192 million for the faltering NFL franchise before later adding United to his expanding portfolio. A resultant feud between Malcolm and George contributed to the demise of Yankee-United relations, leaving plans unfulfilled on the collaborative drawing board.

Ultimately, with autocrats such as Glazer, Steinbrenner and Sir Alex Ferguson guarding their fiefdoms, the Yankees-United relationship petered out within a couple of years, never really delivering benefits for either party. Kenyon switched jobs in 2003, taking up the reigns at Chelsea, while Schiller also moved on in a nomadic career. Any residual ties between the colossal cousins did not survive the change of personnel.

Final thoughts on the Yankees and Manchester United joining forces

In August 2012, United made an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, coming full circle in its lust for American support. To this day, the club’s stock trades freely in that exhilarating market, and United occupies Wall Street analysts like few sports teams in the world.

Ironically, less than a year after the United IPO, the Yankees entered another strategic partnership with a Premier League club: Manchester City, the crosstown rival of their original soccer love. Whereas United and the Yankees created a fictional superclub in the ether, City encouraged the formation of a real hybrid team: New York City FC (NYCFC), an MLS expansion franchise. 

The Yankees own 20% of that team, with City holding 80%. NYCFC has played at Yankee Stadium for its entire existence, serving as a far more tangible symbol of collaboration than anything United ever conceived in the Bronx. Together, the Yankees and Manchester City have made material enhancements to their respective communities, while Manchester United’s pinstriped flirtation is now just a footnote in the team’s expansive ephemera.

However, when it comes to true interaction between sporting titans, examples of true success are exceedingly rare – and for good reason. Often, teams earn superclub status by affecting a ruthless, single-minded commitment to winning. By its very nature, such a journey is incompatible with fly-on-the-wall passengers, and in the early-2000s, Manchester United and the New York Yankees proved that point succinctly.

Still, there is something so intoxicating about the transatlantic hook-up that birthed message board meltdowns like little else in the new millennium. I remain eternally captivated by such cataclysmic blends of heritage, money, cache and ego.

Accordingly, as the Yankees and Manchester United continue to grow, scaling new heights in exponential fashion, people will continue to explore their brief marriage for nuggets of wisdom pertaining to business development, marketing and international expansion. I hope my research adds to the canon, because this is a wrinkle of pop culture that deserves genuine recognition.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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