Manchester United forward Robin Van Persie celebrates after scoring three… (Paul Ellis / AFP / Getty Images )
Robin Van Persie had a number in mind when he jumped from Arsenal to Manchester United last summer. And it wasn't the $70 million his new four-year contract was worth.
After wearing uniform No. 9 with the Dutch national team and 10 and 11 during his nine years with Arsenal, Van Persie put some thought into his uniform choice before deciding to take his talents to Old Trafford, home of the 19-time English Premier League champions.
"I took the No. 20 shirt," he said at his introductory news conference in August, "because I'm here to win a 20th title with United."
He made good on that prediction Monday when his first-half hat trick lifted Man U to a 3-0 win over Aston Villa, securing the EPL title with four matches left to play. The last team to clinch a championship that early was Man U in 2001.
And that leaves Van Persie and his teammates focusing on another number: 95.
If Man U wins its final four games, beginning Sunday when Van Persie makes his first trip back to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium since leaving the team, Man U would finish the season with 96 points, one better than the EPL record set nine seasons ago by Chelsea.
That success couldn't have come at a better time for Manchester United and Malcolm Glazer, the team's Florida-based owner, who now seem poised to dominate English soccer for years to come.
Just eight months ago Man U was weighed down by more than $660 million in debt. So even before its record-setting run to the championship, the club was rushing to cash in on hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing opportunities — all at a time when the league was rethinking the way its clubs did business.
In July the team and General Motors approved the most lucrative sponsorship deal in soccer history, a seven-year, $559-million agreement that will see Man U advertise the Chevrolet brand on its uniforms beginning in the 2014-15 season. Ten days after that shares of Manchester United began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, raising another $233 million.
But the team's most ambitious — and fruitful — efforts may be yet to come, thanks in part to NBC's decision to spend a quarter-billion dollars to outbid cable channels Fox and ESPN for the television rights to Premier League games over the next three seasons.
As the defending champion, Manchester United figures to get much of NBC's attention when the network's coverage kicks off in August, attention that could open the door to even more marketing opportunities in the U.S. — and may already be giving the team leverage in ongoing talks with Nike, which supplies its uniforms.
Given that changing landscape, David Gill, the franchise's outgoing CEO, told Reuters last week that Man U plans to open a sales office in the U.S., complementing ones in Hong Kong and London. And that eventually could make United even more dominant by funding the acquisition of more players like Van Persie.
Although Forbes estimates Manchester United's worth at $3.17 billion, making it the world's second-most valuable sports franchise behind Real Madrid, its debt load left the team cautious during the transfer period in recent years. Between 2001 and 2008 Man U spent more than $29 million on transfer fees for a single player six times. In the last five years it did that just once — for Van Persie, a deal that went forward only after Glazer gave his approval — while allowing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo to leave for better-paying deals elsewhere.
"We've always operated like this," Gill said. "The key cost at any football club is the players, and we've had a target of spending no more than 50% of revenues on wages."
That philosophy has been the exception around the Premier League in recent years, but it will soon become the rule after clubs ratified the long-debated Financial Fair Play guidelines earlier this month. The plan, which goes into effect this summer, will limit how much debt teams can take on over a three-season period while instituting what amounts to a soft cap on salary increases.
The cap may be breached if a club can cover the additional costs through added commercial revenue — a clause that benefits sponsorship-rich teams such as United while hurting rivals like Chelsea and Manchester City, which have been funding their payrolls primarily out of their owners' deep pockets.
For United and Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has guided the team to 13 Premier League titles in 19 seasons, it all adds up to a perfect storm of good fortune: a record-setting season leading to lucrative marketing deals at a time when new financial guidelines are tying payroll increases to sponsorship earnings.
It's no surprise, then, that Manchester United helped write the FFP rules.
And it's why United is now well-positioned to go after Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski, Atletico Madrid forward Radamel Falcao and midfielders Victor Wanyama (Celtic) and Sven Bender (Dortmund).
It's also why Van Persie may have to ask for a new uniform number next season. No. 21 is still available.