Chevy Bets Big on English Soccer While Backing Out of Europe

Manchester United (MANU) unveiled its Chevrolet-sponsored uniforms today with much digital fanfare (including this video montage). Not mentioned amid the celebration: Soon, you will not be able to buy a Chevy in Europe.

The jerseys look pretty much like they used to, only with a big Chevy logo where there once was a giant “AIG.” And the words “youth,” “courage,” and “greatness” are stitched in small letters around the neck (although “more goals, fewer recalls” might have been a better choice).

The apparel, made by Nike (NKE), doesn’t come cheaply for General Motors (GM). Chevy’s parent company agreed to pay Manchester United $559 million over seven years to have its badge on Wayne Rooney, the next Wayne Rooney, and all their mates.

Courtesy Nike

That’s about the cost of 21 Super Bowl commercials each year. Chevy easily could have slapped its name on a stadium for that kind of money. Citigroup (C) is paying $20 million a year for 20 years to host the New York Mets at Citi Field. MetLife (MET) is forking over $16 million a year for 25 NFL seasons at the bowl-shaped billboard where New York Giants and Jets fans tailgate.

GM will be sending those big checks to England as the carmaker slowly backs Chevy out of both eastern and western Europe, where last year it sold 142,469 Chevys. In the U.S., the brand typically bests that figure in a month.

As the company moves to become EU-free, its European sales dropped 45 percent in the first five months of this year. GM still does a brisk trade in Europe, but that’s mostly via its Opel and Vauxhall brands.

Courtesy Nike

From that perspective, the big Manchester jersey play seems shockingly incongruous. Either Chevy’s marketing folks never really talk to its business-development folks, or the company is simply betting on the team’s international appeal.

To be sure, in terms of an advertising forum there is little in the world like Manchester United. As one of the most popular clubs in the most popular league of the world’s most popular sport, the team is an almost limitless billboard. When considering the number of games in a year with the scale of average viewers, the “eyeball” potential quickly becomes staggering. And then there’s the multiplier effect of all the jerseys the fans will be wearing—kits, of course, that can be preordered as of this morning.

The team’s roster comprises players from a lot of nations where GM needs to move its machines. Striker Javier Hernández hails from Mexico. Midfielder Shinji Kagawa is Japanese. And Antonio Valencia, a winger, plays for Ecuador when national tournaments come around.

Had the company negotiated with Manchester United a little later, however, it might have achieved a better deal. The team was in shambles this past season, finishing seventh in the Barclays Premier League, by far its worst performance in recent history.

If the club recovers to championship form this year, GM will have won millions of Chevy fans. If that doesn’t happen, maybe it can slap “Opel” or “Vauxhall” on the uniforms next year.

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