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Man Utd CEO: Soccer much more in American 'psyche'

Manchester United's Chris Smalling plays against  Manchester City's Stefan Jovetic during the Barclays Premier League match Nov. 2, 2014 in England.
John Peters | Man Utd | Getty Images
Manchester United's Chris Smalling plays against Manchester City's Stefan Jovetic during the Barclays Premier League match Nov. 2, 2014 in England.

The most important soccer brand in the world is bullish on U.S. growth, even if it cheekily views the America as a "developing market."

"Soccer is no longer a niche sport in the U.S.," Edward Woodward, CEO of Manchester United, said at the Baron Investment Conference in Manhattan Friday.

"The younger demographic is now playing more soccer, watching more soccer on television," he told an audience of mostly elderly Baron mutual fund shareholders in the Metropolitan Opera House. "They're playing FIFA on their devices, they're following the players and celebrities. It's much more in their psyche."

According to a recent ESPN Sports Poll, for the first time in 20 years Major League Soccer has caught up with Major League Baseball in popularity with tweens and teens. In the survey, both leagues claim 18 percent of 12- to 17 year-olds as avid fans of their sport, the poll said.

Woodward said his publicly traded company had lots more to sell in the U.S.

"Our product hasn't been particularly accessible in this country," he explained. "That's one of the things we think is an opportunity going forward."

Manchester United recently signed a 10-year merchandising deal with Adidas that's worth $1.3 billion. That comes after Chevrolet agreed to a seven-year, $560 million contract to have its cross logo on the front of the team's famous red jerseys.

"What we want to do is grow out more sponsorship deals so that we're relevant, so we're marketed by our partners in this country," Woodward added. "We think there's a keen opportunity from a retail merchandising perspective."

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Right now, more than 13.6 million people play soccer in the U.S. up from about 11 million in 2009, Statista data reveals. Despite the trend, Woodward acknowledged acceptance of soccer in America has room to improve.

"The U.S. is a developing market," he said to laughs.

While bullish on the country, Woodward added Manchester United had no plans to invest in a Major League Soccer team.

The owners of fellow English Premier League teams Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers have recently invested in new MLS teams in New York City and Los Angeles, respectively.

The Baron family is a big fan.

Manchester United's stock is held by four Baron funds, between 1.2 percent and 4.3 percent of their net assets as of Sept. 30, according to Baron marketing materials.

"We believe it's still early in the game," Baron analyst Ashim Mehra said during his introduction of Woodward. "Manchester United is truly a global brand."

Woodward was then hugged by Baron founder Ron Baron as he came on stage to applause.

The stock, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is up 1.8 percent this year but down nearly 19 percent since highs in late July.