August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

GM's soccer sponsorship has game

In the midst of seemingly endless product recalls, General Motors could do with a lift. And a positive event involving the giant automaker, rescued from bankruptcy by taxpayers just a few years ago, happened recently in an unlikely venue.

Sitting in the University of Michigan’s football stadium I witnessed a full house of close to 110,000 people cheer a game between two of the world’s most famous soccer teams, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Just before the game, GM’s embattled CEO, Mary Barra, appeared on the stadium’s big screens, not to apologize for the company’s recalled vehicles, but to welcome fans to the match. Why the appearance by Barra? In case you missed the news two years ago, GM signed a massive $559 million, seven-year deal to sponsor Manchester United with the Chevrolet brand.

At the time the deal was controversial to say the least. The deal’s architect, GM’s former global marketing boss, was fired for not fully disclosing terms of the sponsorship to GM’s previous CEO. And many pundits questioned why GM was spending so much on backing a British team in a sport that they contend means little to U.S. consumers. The naysayers renewed their attacks when GM pulled the Chevrolet brand out of Europe last year, undermining part of the rationale for the sponsorship. What’s more, ‘Man U’ performed unusually poorly last season in its home country soccer league.

However, none of that seemed to matter to the excited American soccer fans present at Ann Arbor’s Big House this month. “This is only the world’s biggest ever sporting event,” said one young woman sitting nearby. A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but it’s true that it was the biggest crowd in history for a soccer game in the U.S. And it was an entertaining game, with Man U defeating its legendary Spanish opponents by a healthy score of 3-1.

A few months ago, tickets for the game sold out in a few hours and the huge crowd of passionate American soccer enthusiasts seemed to contradict the notion that this country is not interested in a sport that the rest of world worships. For years now soccer has been played at various levels all across the U.S., and even if the enthusiasm for the game has not quite reached the heights of American football, baseball or hockey, it has clearly graduated from the minor leagues. And judging by the crowd gathered in Ann Arbor, soccer appeals to a remarkably diverse racial and ethnic audience.

The recent World Cup in Brazil clearly demonstrated the global reach of the sport, with obsessed fans on hand from every corner of the planet. There was even a major contingent of U.S. enthusiasts present to witness their national team perform remarkably well in the early rounds of the competition.

So is GM’s big bet on soccer smarter than its critics maintain? In the world of motorsports, such as NASCAR, the saying goes ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,’ meaning that a victory by an automaker sponsored race team will help sell cars at that brand’s dealerships.

The link between soccer and car sales may not be quite so straightforward, but it’s a fact that Man U is a globally popular team, with a particularly strong following in Asia, where Chevrolet has big ambitions. And if the Ann Arbor experience is anything to go by, Chevy may be onto something with soccer in America too.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at