July 23, 2014 / 9:46 PM / 3 years ago

GM's Chevrolet jersey sponsorship of Manchester United debuts in U.S.

4 Min Read

DETROIT, July 23 (Reuters) - One bad season for Manchester United has not shaken General Motors Co's belief in its $559 million sponsorship deal with the English soccer club as GM's global mainstream auto brand, Chevrolet, will debut as the jersey sponsor in a match on Wednesday night.

Criticized by some experts in the sponsorship industry as a massive overpay, GM's seven-year deal officially kicks in when United, majority owned by the American Glazer family and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, plays Major League Soccer team Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena outside Los Angeles.

Chevy's top marketing executive, Tim Mahoney, said United's 2013/14 English Premier League Season in which it won no major honors and finished too low in the standings to qualify for European competitions, has not shaken GM's faith. In fact, Germany's Adidas this month signed an even larger 10-year, $1.3 billion sportswear deal with United.

GM isn't the only automaker drawn to soccer as Japan's Nissan Motor Co this month signed a five-year sponsorship deal with United's crosstown rival Manchester City, which won the 2013/14 Premier League.

It is incumbent on GM, however, to connect with United's estimated global following of 659 million fans, especially online in markets such as China, to make its deal a success, sponsorship industry officials have said. To do that, Chevy has launched a dedicated web site and will introduce a series of digital applications for wireless devices.

"We're buying into the brand," Mahoney said in an interview at the company's Detroit headquarters. "Any great brand has a whole history and a heritage behind it. We're in it for the long haul."

Some critics said the United deal lost value when GM announced it would largely pull Chevy from Europe, but executives have repeatedly stressed the real strength of the deal is connecting with United's massive Asian fan base, a region where the No. 1 U.S. automaker's Chevy brand sees potential for further sales gains.

A video GM created for the launch of the jersey, already available online at the company's dedicated football web site, www.ChevroletFC.com, shows fans of United wearing the club's various jerseys over the years until star striker Wayne Rooney is shown in the latest version. The video has been viewed more than 3.5 million times.

GM also launched in March its "What Do You #PlayFor" global marketing campaign that includes soccer clinics for children.

At the Los Angeles match and another match on Aug. 2 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between Manchester United and Real Madrid, the reigning champions of Europe, GM also will offer fans test drives and United-themed events like face painting and soccer obstacle courses.

When United plays its Premier League home opener Aug. 16 at Old Trafford, the company will tout the partnership in global ads, Mahoney said, including ones displayed in English and Mandarin at the stadium itself. The company also will bring 11 children from target markets such as China, India and Indonesia onto the famous pitch. (Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Grant McCool)

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