James Shield's Sheffield United Column: This is one of the smartest moves The Blades have made
Some people will argue it’s a waste of time, money and effort.
Others, who might once have been minded to support the project, could be forgiven for thinking, given how Covid-19 threatens to shrink the travel industry, that it’s a case of right idea, wrong year.
(Well, measures taken to curb the spread of the virus, not the virus itself, which as far as I’m aware hasn’t consciously set out to wreck the airline sector’s balance sheets).
But if I’ve discovered one thing during this extended break in competition, it’s that securing Premier League status has extended Sheffield United’s global reach. So, after enjoying learning how and why Chris Wilder’s side seem to be gaining followers in places like Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, it makes sense for those tasked with spreading the club’s message to look even further east. To the Arabic speaking world in fact.
Different people from different regions, as experts in this field acknowledge, all have different reasons for choosing their foreign club of choice. For some, it might simply be because they like the kit or they’ve watched them on television. For others, the forces which draw them towards a particular team are much stronger and more profound - it was fascinating, talking to one United supporter based in Kyiv, to hear how the story behind United’s journey from League One to the top-flight resonates with supporters in that part of the world, whose own domestic competitions have become virtual hegemonies.
“I think that we appeal to them because of the traditional community model our club represents,” they said. “We are known now as having spent little money and having a small budget, punching way above our weight.
“Wilder is a local boy done good. It is the sort of story that so many followers of clubs across Ukraine wish to emulate.”
The same, it seems, goes for Russia where Spartak Moscow have won 10 of their Premier League’s last 27 editions. CSKA Moscow, meanwhile, have claimed six titles.
Naturally, given owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s presence, many folk in his native Saudi Arabia will feel a connection with Bramall Lane. And, as one of those behind United’s social media presence in the Kingdom, some are willing to spend money on merchandise with replica red and white shirts now on sale in the capital Riyadh.
“Saudi teams have one, two or maybe three international teams to follow, mainly between Spain, the UK and Italy based on Twitter interactions,” Abdullah Alghamdi told The Star this week. “I can claim that United are becoming one of the top five international clubs to follow and engage with in Saudi.”
So far so good.
But there is a more important reason for engaging them than pounds, shillings and pence. Or riyals, or hyrvnia or roubles for that matter - even though the general rule of thumb, in marketing circles at least, is that it costs around three times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one.
United should exploit the opportunity their heightened profile offers to emotionally connect with folk overseas who are interested in the progress of Wilder’s squad, rather than attempt to open up a route into their wallets. In the long-term, that will be worth much more than the sale or a jersey or club branded teddy bear. And I suspect, because Twitter, Instagram and other platforms are being utilised, that is the aim. Surely, even in this money driven world, the type of backing the likes of St Pauli, Union Berlin and Napoli enjoy - precisely because of what they stand for - is still more prized than, say, one of Manchester United’s various ‘partnerships’ with Chinese sweetmakers or a Malaysian lollipop company?
The story of how a side, managed by a fan, captained by a fan and until recently co-owned by a fan, rose through the divisions on a wave of passion rather than money is surely one worth telling? Particularly given they are based in the city which gave birth to the game as we know it today, being home to the world’s oldest club, oldest ground, oldest cup tournament and a host of other footballing firsts.
For precisely that reason, as Sheffield finally wakes up to the fact its sporting history is worth shouting about, the council, local business gurus and indeed United’s neighbours and rivals should hope their quest to spread the message succeeds. Because if it does, then everyone benefits.
I appreciate our local politicians and government officers are inevitably placed in a very awkward position whenever this subject comes up. With their sphere of influence split down the middle - United on one side and Sheffield Wednesday on the other - help for one is invariably portrayed as a snub to the other.
Too often, however, that has led to inertia. Meanwhile, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester bellow at their top of their voices about what they have to offer which, when you think about it, is actually no more than here.
It is time for our civic leaders to stop worrying about offending people’s sensibilities and use United to help them bellow even louder.
And yes, I’d be saying exactly the same thing if Wednesday were in the ascendancy right now.
Because taking advantage of United’s top-flight status doesn’t mean you have to ignore what’s going on at Hillsborough. Indeed, that schism is a wonderful selling point.