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Inside sports business

One of the most prominent Manchester United “team” members at Century Link Field last Friday was an Edmonds native and Seaview High School grad most sports fans have never heard of.

But Phil Clement never took the pitch as the Red Devils defeated Mexico City-based Club America, 1-0, in front of 46,857 fans in the first of four exhibition clashes the English Premier League giant will play in this country. As global chief marketing officer for London-based Aon Corporation, a 66,000-employee risk management and human resources brokerage conglomerate with offices in 120 countries, Clement in 2009 helped engineer a partnership with Manchester United that’s since been extended through 2021.

And the result has been a remarkable corporate symmetry that’s allowed both to expand their international reach.

Let’s face it: modern sports franchises have more in common with Fortune 500 companies like Apple and General Electric than teams of yesteryear. Manchester United, owned by the family of Malcolm Glazer, an American billionaire who died last year, has long been Exhibit A for this transformation — placing No. 5 in the latest Forbes rankings of the world’s wealthiest teams with a $3.1-billion valuation of its TV, stadium and digital operations.

And while traditionalist fans may cringe at the corporate overtones, the key to Manchester United’s partnership with Aon is that neither side pretends it’s fundamentally different from the other. Both recognize common interests in employee talent, recruitment, risk assessment, health and retirement planning, as well as shared goals of broadening their brands beyond all borders.

“What we really found when we started to work with Manchester United was we had an explosion in brand awareness and it was simultaneous in every corner of the world,’’ Clement said Friday, standing outside CenturyLink Field ahead of the game. “What we’ve started doing since last year was working on people really understanding what it is we do because people are recognizing the logo. More people on the planet now recognize our logo than don’t.’’

That’s hardly surprising, with Manchester United having claimed a record 20 league titles in England. But though the team was already hugely popular, Red Devils managing director Richard Arnold says Aon has helped it directly connect with fans well beyond its famed Old Trafford stadium.

“Our TV audience spans over 200 countries around the world, so these tours are usually important for us to give the opportunity for fans around the world to see their team and engage with us as a club,’’ he said. “Our job commercially is to connect with those fans.’’

And with so many offices worldwide, including one here in Seattle, Aon helped Manchester United do just that. This Aon-bankrolled exhibition tour, which continues on to Santa Clara, Calif., and then Chicago, is something the team says will primarily prepare it for the coming season.

But perhaps more importantly, the team and Aon will stage a series of camps and corporate events around the games to help grow their respective brands.

They did it here during a 2010 visit by Manchester United and in subsequent trips to Japan, South Africa, Argentina and other sites where Aon has corporate offices. At each stop, the team makes players and executives available to Aon and its clients for one-on-one corporate sessions, while gaining valuable business insights.

“They generally are a part of our team in terms of the work that they do,’’ Arnold says. “They are heavily involved in our business.’’

Arnold says Aon has helped the team raise capital, use data and analytics, work with sports science and prepare players for retirement. In last week’s five-day Seattle stopover, the team participated in business workshops and met with local companies.

“We’re very lucky to benefit from the introductions they provide us with,’’ Arnold said. “Without naming names, we’ve had meetings with Aon clients locally. Those are fantastic for us to learn from them — particularly in the tech sector. And then, equally for us to share some of the work we’re doing in sports. The work we do on recruitment. We’ve spoken about the signings this year, the coaching we do, leadership, succession planning.’’

Aon had sought the soccer partnership after an internal company survey showed employees felt the public didn’t understand what they did. The company’s work is more strategy oriented and tailored to specific client needs, yet it often got lumped in with consumer insurance brokers.

Clement, hired as Aon’s marketing chief in 2005, had grown up watching his father work as general manager for the Seattle-based JanSport backpack and apparel company as it morphed into a global brand. He saw other Pacific Northwest companies like Starbucks, Nike, Microsoft and Amazon grow worldwide and feels there’s a “passion and authenticity’’ to businesses here.

He says the Manchester United partnership gave Aon the exposure and platform to show the public “we’re really involved in issues like talent, health, retirement and risk. It’s very easy to do that in the context of soccer.’’

When Aon now talks to clients about being “really competitive in talent,’’ it can point to a Manchester United partner that’s demonstrated such competitiveness for decades.

As the Aon deal shows, the Red Devils have extended that competitiveness far beyond the playing fields.