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Well Played: Sharp Sponsors Civil War Inside Manchester United

Electronics giant Sharp (SHCAY) has sponsored protest shirts worn by Manchester United fans angry at the club's owners for burdening the team with debt. It's a stroke of genius that will be closely watched by other sports brand managers and sponsors.

First, some background: Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, acquired United in 2005 for about £790 million but used a series of debt vehicles to do it. Currently, the club has gross debt of about £220 million and annual interest payments of about £45 million.*

This infuriated United fans, as money spent on interest cannot be spent on acquiring better players. Last season, striker Cristiano Ronaldo -- one of the best in the world -- left Manchester for Real Madrid in an £80 million sale that typified Glazer's priorities: Debt first, United second.

Fans reacted by refusing to wear United's red and white shirts -- currently sponsored by insurer Aon in a deal worth £80 million -- to games at Old Trafford, the team's forbidding 76,000-seat stadium. That type of behavior can be a disaster for clubs as shirt sales form a significant revenue stream in football, particularly for overseas fans, and sponsor deals assume a certain level of exposure from fans walking around in the shirt.

Instead, fans wore green-and-gold shirts, the colors the club played in at its birth in 1878 as (I'm not making this up) the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club. Other fans boycotted the new United strip in favor of "old" United shirts, including those from the seasons between 1982 and 2000 when Sharp sponsored the United shirt.

Sharp marketing communications manager Martin Arnold recently admitted that the end of its relationship with United a decade ago took the wind out of the company's brand:

I would say it was when a lot of people started to think that the brand was going into decline.

When you say "Sharp" to people today many of them either bring up Manchester United or microwave ovens that have lasted for 20 years."

Since we stepped away from Manchester United the awareness of Sharp has fallen.

At the same time, United's hated rivals, Liverpool F.C., recently concluded an almost identical internecine conflict of their own, in which one set of indebted American owners were traded for the relatively debt-free owners of the Boston Red Sox.

Toward the end of the Liverpool fans' struggle to force out their indebted owners, they adopted a black protest shirt which featured the chain-link logo of club's sponsor, Standard Chartered (STAN.L), rendered as a pair of twisted snakes. That was unfortunate for StanChart, as the bank had almost nothing to do with Liverpool's problems.

In that context, Sharp's move to get back onto United's protest shirts is a marketing coup of the first stripe. It's cheap, it re-associates the Sharp name with the team in a way that fans will adore, it inoculates the brand against the type of misuse experienced by StanChart, and it will generate tons of free PR and TV exposure when cameras pan the Old Trafford crowd during games.

It also opens up a wealth of possibilities for other brands to execute guerrilla sponsorships at cut-price rates with top-flight clubs. Because the economics of football are so dire -- there's a reason these international clubs are so bogged down with junk bonds -- fans are frequently in conflict with owners. Portsmouth F.C. and Newcastle United F.C. both recently went through ownership upheaval that left fans angry and alienated. Sharp, therefore, appears to have found a useful new medium on which to advertise.

Well played, sir!

*Correction: I updated these numbers based on a more recent story from Bloomberg.