In recent years, the path from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu has been a relatively popular one: Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and of course Cristiano Ronaldo have all moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid.
The deal that saw Paul Pogba join United in preference to Real Madrid, then, gave United vice-chairman Edward Woodward particular pleasure.
Coming on the back of a summer in which United have appointed Jose Mourinho as coach and signed Zlatan Ibrahmovic, it marks the distinct ‘Madrid-isation’ of United’s strategy. The Pogba deal is a move right out of Real Madrid’s Hollywood playbook – to attract fan interest by signing superstars that can mitigate against on-field results with huge commercial weight.
Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse identified this strategy in her book ‘Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment’. She spent time at Real Madrid and used them as a case study. Perhaps coincidentally, she also worked with Alex Ferguson when he presented a class at Harvard on leadership.
“Real Madrid are fully aware that they can learn a lot from the way that Hollywood studios manage their business,” Elberse said. “I see it almost as an assurance against losses. Because the on-the-field results sometimes are just based on luck or what happens in that last minute or an injury. But betting on stars... brings you sustainability in the long run. If you manage that well and if you build an infrastructure around it, it sets the club up for a much longer time, [where] they can afford these types of investments.”
One Real Madrid executive told Elberse: “We think of ourselves as content producers, and we think of our product - the match - as a movie.” Roma owner James Pallotta said the same thing last year: “Don’t look at us a sports team; we want to become a global content company.”
United’s executives may not publicly admit it, but they have done the same thing. Mourinho may argue that he put an end to Barcelona’s dominance under Pep Guardiola, but in the competitive and wide-open Premier League, he no longer comes with a guarantee of success. Nevertheless, he is box-office. So is Ibrahimovic. That matters to a club that has over 70 commercial partners worldwide.
Where does Pogba fit into all this? Perfectly, as it happens. On the pitch, United need a driving force from midfield and off it, Pogba has a reach that can be worth a fortune. “He can be a much bigger asset than just a football player,” Andy Sutherden, global head of sports and partnership marketing at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, told City AM.
“He is the embodiment of bold individualism. And that is so important when we think about what kids are getting hooked on. His magnetism in other areas — music, style — means that he becomes a magnet for younger fans that also have multiple interests beyond just football. He is an individual that can connect with youth on social media and the way that youngsters flirt from one interest to another. An individual that can actually connect with youth in a meaningful and a relevant way has a currency for a football club.”
Most midfielders see themselves as team players. Personality tests show them to be the most unselfish, the most focused on team ethics, the guys binding the defence to the attack. Pogba is different. He talks about himself as a prototype of a player that doesn’t exist (and might not be able to): “I want to combine the skills of Zidane, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Messi, Deschamps and Ronaldinho,” he has said. “I want to become a legend,” he declared before Euro 2016. His biggest ambition? “To win the Ballon D’Or.” The prize that values individualism above any team effort.
Pogba has signed a €38m contract with Adidas, who are not limiting his reach to just football. He has been pictured with rapper Pusha T and says of Adidas: “It’s about more than football. They want to make an impression on culture, too. It would be a good challenge for me, to make something outside of football.”
It’s hardly what the old-fashioned football fan wants to hear from a new signing. Like it or not, though, this is modern football. Players are assets, clubs are content companies and success is no longer viewed from the prism of just what happens on the pitch.
United have missed out on the Champions League in two of the last three seasons; Mourinho, Ibrahimovic and now Pogba will ensure they stay relevant. But that is not the same as successful.
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