Manchester United. A club steeped in history, fame and tradition. Of success, winning trophies, exciting football and once the most progressive sports brand in the world. Growing up a Liverpool fan on the outskirts of Manchester in the 90's and 00's was tough. You can appreciate how difficult this it to write.
But, credit where credit is due, what an institution. Founded on a particular style of play, with a particular set of Mancunian beliefs, the realisation on Sir Matt Busby Way that Football was big business happened before anywhere else in English football and made them the biggest football club in the world. How did that happen, though? And how might it become that again (some would argue that it still is)?
The football was great. The manager was a benevolent, sometimes malevolent, dictator. The players were unrivalled. But it wasn't this.
Remember the phrase coined (I think) in the late 90's about their stadium, Old Trafford? "The Theatre of Dreams". This is how it happened. It made the club appeal WAY beyond football, made the stadium WAY more than a set of bricks and steel that 60-odd thousand people visited each week. It created a vision. A set of ideals, stated what the club was about and anything associated to it should resemble the realisation of a dream. And it did. Similarly alluring to Barcelona's "Mes Que Un Club" or "More Than A Club".
As a kid, I was big into Rugby League. For those who don't even know what that sport is (yes I've met some recently) Rugby League is the working class, some might say 'poor relation', version of Rugby Union. But for the purposes of this article that's by the by. The reason it's important is that every year Rugby League hosts its 'Grand Final' (the 'Superbowl' of British Rugby League) at Old Trafford and has done since 1998 when the event was inaugurated.
Growing up, I hated this fact. I was desperate for it to be at ANY OTHER PLACE other than Old Trafford. I would openly mock the phrase 'Theatre of Dreams'. But whenever I went to Old Trafford to watch the Grand Final (fortunately my Rugby League team St Helens reached it quite regularly) I was desperate to go to Old Trafford, desperate to see my sporting idols do battle against the enemy, desperate to be in the theatre where my dreams might become a reality. And I LOVED being in the stadium. Not just because it was the Grand Final, but because of the power of the statement. It drew you to the club, made you identify with it even though I couldn't stand it. Dare I say it, it was intoxicating whenever we went because of the power of that one single statement. It struck a chord with my values (not that I knew it at the time).
And if it did this to me, a kid who detested seeing Man United win year in year out, imagine the pulling power of that statement to a kid new to football. A person without a football club to support. A person interested in Rugby League who didn't even care about football. All over the world there's a generation of people that the statement resonates with. It means something. It still does to me and it's almost nothing to do with the football team...okay it's a little to do with the (rubbish) football team.
This brings me on to the here and now. The 'Theatre' has somewhat lost its glitz. Without the swashbuckling sport, the dominant team and the disaffection that many Man United fans feel about their own club, how does it inspire the next generation of people to revere something that they might not even like, just like it did with me? How, indeed, does any sports club do that?
An MTP (or Massive Transformative Purpose), that's how. A revisiting and restating of the club's vision and values, a definition of the future that the club wants to create and which states what it means to be associated to Manchester United.
An unlikely source presented itself recently. Marcus Rashford. A local lad, Mancunian, United to his core and a kid who has never played for any other team. Never wanted to. Lives his dream every day being a Man United player. If anyone knows what Manchester United means, it's him.
For those of you that don't know what he did recently, he was instrumental in standing up against UK government cut-backs of free school meals for under-privileged children, writing an open letter to the government, raising millions in the process and forcing the government to change their policy. An act of true humanity. Defending the poorest in society drawing on his own experience, using his platform for good and he continues to do so, recently receiving an MBE in recognition of his work. He's 22. He has transcended football, politics and news agendas through living his values.
But back to United. As they have seemingly (and I say this with some relish) lost their way both on and off field, how do they go about defining who they are for the next 20 or 30 years, to reposition it and speak to those wider than the average football fan?
The current mission statement reads this: Manchester United's mission is to be the best football club in the world, both on and off the pitch.
Yeah I nearly fell asleep too. And how limiting is it? Nowhere near as aspirational as "More Than A Club" or as evocative as the 'Theatre of Dreams'.
It doesn't attract people and encourage them to find out more about the club. It doesn't provide any view on what the club believes in, nor how its people should act. It doesn't transcend, nor inspire, nor even live up to the example that one of its own, Marcus Rashford, has displayed.
I would argue that Rashford's example should light the way as they create a new, resonating view of what their future looks like, just like they did all those years ago with the "Theatre of Dreams". That speaks beyond football, beyond sport, and gives everyone associated to the club a clear direction of how to act and what values to uphold.
They must leverage the example set by Rashford and truly define the future that they want to help to create based on the values that everyone at the club should have. What could it be? As you know by now, I'm not a Manchester United fan however something along the lines of "Freedom through Football" might not be far wrong, or "Inspiring Hope, Dignity & Wonder". Maybe, maybe not but either way involving Marcus Rashford, and using his example in helping to define it would be a very good place to start, in defining their values and their future!
Post Script: Morally is it right that Manchester United 'cash in' on this and to use Rashford's fight as a reflection of themselves? In my view of course they should. He is one of them. A true Mancunian. A true 'Red'. He is in United's DNA and United is in his. He is partly a product of their own system, which of course is broader than just teaching kids to play football really well, and he is a product of the local community. And therefore personally I believe it's a perfect inflection point for them to help redefine a purposeful and inspiring MTP. One which might even help inspire the next Marcus Rashford.
How can an MTP help your sporting organisation become more exponential? Come chat to us at Swush and we'll be happy to help.