Sheffield United: Kevin McCabe on being standard-bearers for the city and the biggest sponsorship deal in Bramall Lane history
The official unveiling of Sheffield United's new shirt sponsors was a deliberately glamorous affair
Videos of last term's promotion winning exploits, accompanied by suitably tup-thumping soundtracks, flashed across a giant video screen. Canapés, arancini and glasses of sparkling mineral water were handed out by a small army of waiting staff as folk mingled ahead of the official announcement. Every aspect of the event was carefully choreographed to build the tension, increase the drama and ensure those in attendance, including manager Chris Wilder and his captain Billy Sharp, realised this was a very big deal.
But it was the audience, not the pomp, ceremony or cuisine, which confirmed the importance of United's partnership with Union Standard Group. Business leaders and politicians from across the region all felt it was necessary to show their faces as United announced a deal which, as well as being the most lucrative in their 130 year history, is thought to be more profitable than any similar agreement brokered by a club which has spent more than a couple of seasons outside the Premier League.
"I was abroad last week in the Far East and everyone talks football," United's co-owner Kevin McCabe said, describing the sum they have extracted from USG as a "20-fold" increase on what they could expect to receive in the Championship. "Before when I would go to the Far East they would talk football with me because they know I own a club. Now, because of the impact of the Premier League they want to do something with it, something as a business that’s associated with their desire to be attached to a club that’s in the Premier League.
"People talk. People then believe they’ve got a connection with Sheffield United. It gives them a sense of oomph, pride – call it what you will."
McCabe, as both Wilder and Sharp have done previously, was keen to position United as standard-bearers for the entire city. Although that will not resonate well at Hillsborough, the home of their arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday, it is impossible to deny the fact that, after securing a place in such a prestigious competition, Wilder's squad are now Sheffield's most powerful marketing weapon on the global stage. That, McCabe believes, brings a wealth of possibilities. And a responsibility, explaining the presence of so many civic dignitaries, for the region to help United maximise the opportunities top-flight status brings. One of those panjandrums, the former Minister for Sport Richard Caborn, noted during his own speech how much football has fuelled the growth of Manchester and Liverpool.
"Sheffield could do with two clubs in the Premiership, as long we’re there first," McCabe said. "Yorkshire itself, I know as a true supporter you don’t really care about other clubs. But for Yorkshire, to have Sheffield and Leeds in the Premier League, that would be great for the economy.
"The fact it’s just Sheffield United, then lets hog it, let’s make it work for the city. And it will work for the city.
"It shouldn’t be forgotten when we were last back in the Premier League we twinned Sheffield with Chengdu in China. Part of that was because of United’s profile because of the Premier League in those days. Now it’s probably five-fold bigger. Now, the city has got unite with us and recognise us, as we’re a tool for them to utilise to benefit all the city, which is the people, which is jobs, prosperity and profile. Use us."
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Well over a decade has passed since United last graced the top-flight, as McCabe lamented on stage before retiring to adjacent room for a series of interviews with the media. Given they were relegated in such controversial circumstances - McCabe fighting for reinstatement after it emerged fellow strugglers West Ham had fielded ineligible players - it seemed strange that Sir Dave Richards, the PL's former chairman, had also been invited to Bramall Lane. After all, it was during his tenure that the organisation, much to United's disgust, refused to deduct the Londoners points for breaching rules outlawing third party ownership when they signed Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez. McCabe, who eventually secured compensation when an independent inquiry supported the basis of his argument, has clearly tried to draw a line under the affair as United prepare to enter what, in both sporting and commercial contexts, is a totally different world to the one they left in 2007.
"That was probably a deal of a quarter of a million," McCabe said, when asked how the USG agreement compared to the one United brokered, with another financial firm, in 2006. "Sponsorships have changed. What we need is the spin-off and having USG as our shirt sponsor should, due to the connections they may have, bring other sponsors from other countries; whether it’s our ladies football, academy football, international sponsorship of the stand, which is an international price not a local price, that takes you up and up in terms of revenue and it’s revenue you need."
USG, whose headquarters are in Sydney, operate across the Asia-Pacific region. McCabe suggested that could lead to United playing friendlies in Australia and China during the course of the three year agreement.
"We’ve taken the team to China before, two seasons before we got promoted (in 2006)," he said. "It’s a small world. It’s not a problem and that’s the difference – you can get paid for it. You can’t in the Championship, it’s nickels and dimes. Here it’s big bucks."
Of course, for all the hype and pizazz of today's occasion, United's supporters ultimately want to see results on the pitch. With Wilder known to be chasing a number of targets - including Queens Park Rangers' Luke Freeman, Oli McBurnie of Swansea City and Brentford's Neal Maupay - the best piece of PR his paymasters could perform is by following USG's arrival with a new signing.
Suggesting they approached United rather than the other way around - "The minute we were promoted we got people on the phone, agents. It didn’t take long" - McCabe insisted USG's presence can help Wilder achieve further success after winning two promotions in only three seasons.
"For us and the club, it’s us learning what we’ve now got in (terms of) Premiership football to make even more from corporate sponsorships," McCabe said.
"It’s a learning curve for colleagues, we’ve got to get our skates on. We mustn’t lose the opportunity because it comes because we’re in one league.
"So lets get five or six more deals like this one and you’ve got a lot more money for players. It’s first-team football that wins the day, financially."