It was coming up for 2.30am local time when Manchester
United against Liverpool entered stoppage time.
The street cleaners were getting to work on roads that already looked spotless. The subway
had already closed for the night. Tokyo always seems more exciting when the
neon lights are throbbing. But now it was time for the sakariba, the city’s liveliest
districts, to rest. At Footnik bar, for instance, with its quotes
from Matt Busby and Bill Shankly inside the entrance, a framed note on the wall from the
time Ian Callaghan dropped in for a drink, and its policy that the opening hours depend
entirely on the Premier League’s kick-off times.
But it was still heaving in Footnik for Sunday’s game even if — and here was the surprise
— there was not a single person in Manchester United colours inside what many people consider
to be Tokyo’s best place to watch the Premier League.
Plenty of Liverpool supporters had filed in and there were lots of rugby fans wanting
a late drink with the bonus of some sport on the big screens. Yet there was a strange
absence of people cheering on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team.
United hardly lack numbers when it comes to global support, but that perhaps was why it
was so noticeable, especially given recent research telling us — a little optimistically
— that they now have 1.1 billion followers (a number, if you believed it, that would
mean approximately one out of every seven people on the entire planet has spent the
last week wondering why nobody picked up Adam Lallana at the far post).
But why so much apathy in a city that has previously given the impression of being United-mad?
When The Athletic’s Daniel Taylor asked that question of Hideaki Naito, the president
of United’s Japanese supporters’ club, his explanation was simple: it’s the team’s
decline. A lot of United’s Japanese supporters, Hideaki
explained, had simply lost interest. Some had switched their attention to baseball,
Tokyo’s real sporting passion, or deserted United for teams in the J-League.
“A lot would rather stay at home now, rather than go out to watch a game,” he said. “The
younger United supporters, in particular, have found other interests.”
Yumiko Tamara, the secretary of Liverpool’s Japanese supporters’ club, had pulled up
a chair on the other side of the table. The rivalries are different here: less tribal,
more civil, and the two are friends, bonded by a shared love of English football.
Liverpool, they agreed, had overtaken United as the best-supported team in Japan
On the tenth floor of business tower near Liverpool’s water front, sit the offices
of a club styling itself as European football royalty.
There’s a bust of Bill Shankly in the reception. Even the cushions and the plant pots have
the Liverpool crest on them. The pictures on the walls have been changed since June
to commemorate the night when Liverpool put their ribbons on the European Cup for a sixth
time. It is here where Liverpool are plotting their
“6 Times” business strategy. Liverpool have “6 Times” emblazoned in
huge capital letters inside their city-centre offices. No other English club comes close
to replicating that success and this is one of the reasons why Liverpool are so determined
to bring in Nike to drive the next part of their commercial growth at the expense of
New Balance. Liverpool, in short, believe they have outgrown their current shirt manufacturers.
All of which has to be an issue for Old Trafford when, for the best part of three decades,
they have tended to look down on Liverpool’s commercial operation with what at, times,
has bordered on disdain. “Liverpool have never bridged the commercial
gap,” Edward Freedman, a former United executive, tells The Athletic. “They have lagged behind
United for a long time. We stole a march on Liverpool, big-time, and I don’t think Liverpool
have ever caught up. They never looked at it properly and they never put the right people
in place.” These are sensitive times for Liverpool, prior
to their court case with New Balance the club’s hierarchy were reluctant to speak publicly
in the current climate about shirt sales and supporter growth. But the data speaks for
itself. Liverpool had 202.7 million social-media interactions from May 7 to June 12 alone.
They shipped products to supporters in 191 different nations last year and have 307 official
supporters’ clubs based in 99 countries. The next set of figures ought to show an explosion
in the club’s commercial revenue. For now, however, the numbers show they still
have a long way to go. United recently announced club-record revenue of £627.1 million, a
rise of 6.3 per cent, whereas Liverpool’s was £455 million.
As for shirt sales, Liverpool have sold on average 1.13 million shirts annually over
the last five years. United’s average is 1.85 million. Liverpool’s commercial revenue
is the eighth highest in Europe, according to Deloitte, but not even half the amount
that Real Madrid command and more than £100 million behind United. Although it would be
expected that Liverpool are lagging behind, industry experts say it should not be such
a significant difference. Perhaps the more revealing statistic would
be the one that tells us the commercial revenue and shirt-sale numbers for 2019 alone. Specifically,
whether Liverpool have already started closing the gap. Or, indeed, the figures in 2020-21
if Nike is permitted to press ahead with its plans to expand the club’s profile.
That could be highly significant. Nike’s involvement would mean Liverpool’s kit being
sold in at least 6,000 stores when, according to the evidence heard in court, it has not
even been half that number previously. Nike certainly isn’t hanging around, reserving
factory space to manufacture 2.9 million units and drawing up plans to promote the club through
non-football influencers such as LeBron James, Serena Williams and Drake. The case has now reached its end. Liverpool
made it clear they felt New Balance couldn’t match their ambition and regardless of their
successful outcome, it feels instructive that two sportswear giants were at all fighting
to associate their names with the club’s success.