Emblazoned on the great glass frontage of Old Trafford’s East Stand, sandwiched between the soft bronze statue of Sir Matt Busby and the neon red letters of the club’s name, was proof of Manchester United’s complete conversion to the digital age.
To celebrate, the club placed a vast logo on its stadium. Underneath it, towering over Busby’s head, was the page’s address. Every other Premier League club has long been on the platform. Now, at last and in style, United has succumbed to the future.
For a team that has long been so pioneering and so ground breaking off the field, United has always seemed curiously hesitant when it comes. This was the first club, after all, to realize the potential in emerging markets, and then to work out how to monetize that popularity.
United’s formidable financial strength is built, in no small part, on a worldwide network of 65 regional partners, catering for everything from noodles to financial services. There is a formal footwear partner, and an informal footwear partner.
United, in a very real sense, has sold its soles, but whatever qualms that might have once existed have long since evaporated. Indeed, the policy has proved so effective that most of its rivals have since started to copy it.
That enterprising approach has not necessarily been matched online. United latched onto significance early, and the club regularly boasts about its social imprint in its quarterly calls with investors. But it was not until that United decided that Twitter was not just — or not only, anyway — a self-indulgent fad. It was the last team in both the League and the Champions League to join.
It waited five more years to decide that, too, is here to stay. Quite why United has been so reticent to enter this brave new world is not clear, though the most obvious explanation may also be the most convincing: If something does not directly drive revenue, the club’s hierarchy — and the Glazer family that sits at its head — has tended not to be especially interested.
At last, though, United has taken the plunge. Its channel is already replete with the staples: videos offering exclusive access and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a raft of famous matches — wins, all of them, obviously — condensed into two-and-a-half-minute highlight reels. Like all social media, prizes brevity, immediacy, punchiness. The world United has finally entered is one of bite-size content, easily shared hits of pleasure.
Whether that is a world this United vintage is suited to is a different matter. As soccer, and sports in general, pivot toward the bright digital horizon, it is worth considering Marshall McLuhan’s adage that the medium is the message. Clubs cannot hope simply to exploit the power and reach without being shaped by them in some way, too.
The way audiences consume soccer — and everything else — is changing. Fans no longer have to watch a whole 90-minute match. Often, they do not even need to see extended highlights. United’s audience, and those of its peers, may be time-rich, but it is attention-poor. The minute we are not entertained, there is a powerful temptation to skip forward.
You can see goals, in clips of no more than a few seconds. The best tricks or the most egregious errors are replicated in the form of even briefer. A player can now be reduced to a compilation lasting barely a couple of minutes. This is the future, and in the future, nobody will pay attention to anything for 15 minutes.
That is significant for the way all clubs — and super clubs like United, in particular — are run. Fans and owners of soccer’s great names have always demanded not just success, but style, too. That is ever more pressing now, in an age when teams must not only be beautiful for all 90 minutes, but look spectacular in bite-size chunks, too.
There is a reason teams are prepared to spend unimaginable sums on individual players capable of moments of magic, or those who might create some social media buzz. There is a reason, too, beyond some intangible philosophical preference, that more and more teams are choosing to employ coaches who can deliver an adventurous, expansive approach, rather than simply those with the most trophies on their résumés.
That, of course, is where José Mourinho comes in, though in truth much the same could be said of his counterpart at Chelsea, Antonio Conte. Neither is an attacking coach in the same way that Pep Guardiola, of Manchester City, or even Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp or Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is. Mourinho and Conte preach a tactically astute, but inherently cautious, approach.
That is not to say that either Mourinho or Conte is a bad coach, or that United or Chelsea is a bad team. But watching United recover to beat Chelsea, 2-1, on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder if this was enough, now, given how much soccer’s priorities have changed. Is it enough, as Mourinho said, for a club of United’s scope and scale to have a “humble attitude,” to be diligent and determined, to eke out victory through gritted teeth?
But if the worst happens, then what can Mourinho and Conte fall back on? For Klopp and Pochettino — neither of whom, it should be said, has won a trophy with his current team — there is a style and a swagger, a sense that these are teams fans want to watch, teams that make waves, and go viral.
Neither United nor Chelsea can say the same. Both have fallen behind City — that much is clear — but in a sense, they are losing ground to Liverpool and Spurs, too, if only in intangibles: They are not as compelling, not as entertaining, not as much fun. There is a desire, at times, to skip ahead. That is at odds with the demands of the age. This is the world United has stepped into. Now, it is at its mercy.