Coffee and Soccer The odd couple

British soccer club Manchester United has been gaining a reputation for lucrative but sometimes bizarre commercial partnerships. The latest involves German family-owned coffee firm Melitta.
Manchester United players Romelu Lukaku (left), Juan Mata and Daley Blind (right) show unbridled enthusiasm for their club's first official coffee partner.

Coffee and soccer make for strange bedfellows, but as Volker Stühmeier, the manager of German family-owned coffee firm Melitta, puts it, “with this cooperation with Manchester United, we’re heading toward a whole new dimension.”

Mr. Stühmeier is one of three heads of the German company, which this week announced the deal with Manchester United, the British soccer club. The German coffee specialists are going to be the club’s first official coffee partner.

A fourth-generation family firm, Melitta will provide up to 200 coffee vending machines at Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, as well as provide coffee in VIP areas. Melitta will also refurbish the stadium’s Red Café dining area. An estimated 6,000 kilos of coffee, sold for £2.50 a cup ($3.30), is consumed every football season at the stadium. Alcohol is not permitted during games.

Dedicated fans will also be able to buy branded Melitta coffee machines to take home. A series of promotional photos shows the club’s players brewing up a cup.

It’s a good deal for Melitta, which is run by Mr. Stühmeier, a former banker and the company’s first non-family manager. He heads the board together with the family owners, brothers Stephan and Jero Bentz. Although Germans love their coffee – they drank 160 liters per person last year – sales of coffee brewed with filters, one of Melitta’s best known products, fell 3 percentage points to 62 percent in 2016, according to the German coffee industry. Single-serve coffee capsules or pods, such as those sold by Nespresso, Keurig Green Mountain, Jacobs or Senseo have instead grown in popularity.

Manchester United's commercial partnerships include makers of paint, mattresses, wine, tires, noodles and even tractors.

Manchester United has never had an exclusive supplier of hot drinks and “they came to us, not the other way around,” Mr. Stühmeier says. The club saw a need for improvement, he explains, noting that this is not a traditional sponsorship deal, but the start of a new cooperative venture and an equal partnership.

When he talks about “new dimensions,” Mr. Stühmeier adds, he isn’t just talking in terms of business. Manchester United is one of the best known sports brands in the world. They were named most valuable soccer club in the world in 2017, and fourth most valuable sports club in the world after the US’ Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers by business magazine Forbes. The British club has more than 650 million fans around the world and more than 130 million people follow them on social media.

There’s no doubt that the German coffee company, another example of the country’s successful small and medium-sized businesses known as Mittelstand, could benefit from all that brand recognition. Manchester United’s games are broadcast in 205 countries, including in Asia. And it seems to be working: Two of the UK's biggest selling tabloids, the Daily Mail and the Sun, where German coffee companies tend not to take priority, have already reported on the deal.

Brewing up a cunning plan: Manchester United legendary trainer, Sir Alex Ferguson, with Melitta manager Volker Stühmeier (right) at Old Trafford.

Around 70 percent of Melitta’s revenue comes from the sale of coffee and coffee machines and about half of that comes from international business. Other products include Swirl vacuum cleaner bags and Glad aluminum foils and baking paper. Restructuring over the past few years has seen Melitta’s annual turnover rise 8 percent to €1.45 billion ($1.7 billion).

As for Manchester United, this is just the latest in a string of similar new commercial partnerships. The club now has 54 of them and they include all kinds of firms willing to get into bed with soccer players, including commercial partners for paint, mattresses, wine, tires, noodles and even Japanese tractors.

Anja Mueller covers small to medium sized business for Handelsblatt and Kerstin Leitel is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in London. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]