Man United fans hit out at Vodafone in takeover protest

LONDON – Vodafone has been targeted by Manchester United fans protesting about the direction their club is going under its controversial new owner, American Malcolm Glazer.

Fans opposed to the US tycoon have joined pressure groups such as Shareholders United, which has embarked on a strategy of boycotting products and services from the club's commercial partners, including the shirt sponsor Vodafone, kit sponsor Nike, Budweiser and Pepsi.

Vodafone's AGM yesterday was picketed by protesting United fans carrying posters saying "Hang up on Malcolm Glazer".

The ease with which customers can switch mobile contracts suggests that Vodafone could be more vulnerable than other companies to the fans' boycott.

The mobile phone giant signed a £36m four-year shirt deal in 2003, but it could now find its sponsorship having a negative impact on its brand.

Nick Towle of Shareholders United said that if Manchester United failed under the weight of debt it has now taken on, Vodafone will be tied to that failure.

"This could be a very, very big issue for Vodafone," he said.

The resentment of Glazer is linked to a desire to keep the club out of the control of a foreign businessman and worry about the high level of debt the club has taken on during the takeover.

Glazer acquired the club for £790m, following a protracted campaign of building his stake and gathering support and extra capital for his bid.

Shareholders United's website promises: "There will be collective and individual action across a wide range of activities, making sure that United and its sponsors hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons."

The mobile operator's chief marketing officer Peter Bamford said yesterday it has experienced a "very, very small" number of contract cancellations by Manchester United fans.

Manchester United has 1.5m UK fans, with as many as 75m worldwide.

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