Back in 1998 the Chicago Bulls and Manchester United were equals.
Sporting success and star players made them two of highest-earning sporting organizations on the planet.
But in the decades that followed, United left the Bulls behind, big time.
It now makes close to half a billion more than the basketball team.
ESPN’s The Last Dance series, which chronicles Michael Jordan’s final 1997-98 season, reveals the level of global attention the Bulls had in that era.
So it’s hard to fathom how it ended up that far back.
At the end of the season the documentary series portrays, both clubs stood at a crossroads.
For the first time in the decade, United finished the year trophy-less, missing out on the title to Arsenal.
The Mancunians had failed to cope without talisman Eric Cantona, who had shockingly retired 12 months earlier.
Over in Chicago, the Bulls hoped not to struggle the way United had as it prepared for the (second) departure of its legendary leader, Michael Jordan.
At that point, in terms of revenue, things were relatively even.
Manchester United earned £88 million ($145 million based on 1998 exchange rates), while the Bulls pocketed $112 million.
But when The Last Dance celebrations subsided, things changed.
United dominate, Bulls crash
United bounced back from the failure of the year before.
The 1998-99 campaign was the most successful on record. The club won a historic Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble.
The Bulls crashed. Hit by both the loss of Jordan and the 1998 player’s strike which shortened the next campaign.
It never recovered, the six championships which concluded with The Last Dance season was the Bulls’ most recent title.
United, on the other hand, secured a further five league titles and another Champions League in the next ten years.
The financial comparison is even more stark.
By 2008, Forbes ranked United as most valuable in the world at $1.8 billion. Its revenue was $459 million, triple that of the Bulls ($165 million).
So why did Manchester United get so far ahead?
‘Exploiting all sources’
Television revenue for United nearly quadrupled between 1998 and 2008, as Premier League soccer became popular around the globe.
But it wasn’t just that. The Red Devils were ruthless in expanding other sources of income.
Old Trafford’s stadium capacity was also increased from 55,000 to 66,000.
As the chief executive of United’s bitter rivals Manchester City, Ferran Soriano says, in his book Goal: the ball doesn’t go in by chance, the Red Devils were experts at “exploiting all sources of income, such as through marketing or at the stadium.”
Soriano explains he used United’s model to grow the income at his previous employer FC Barcelona, where he was general manager for five years.
Chicago Bulls did increase sponsorship revenue in the first decade of the millennium, but it wasn’t ever getting close to United.
The platforms for exposure it could offer corporate partners were more limited.
The Bulls couldn’t offer the global billboard that United gave Nike and AIG on its jerseys, due to, recently relaxed, NBA rules.
The benefits of expanding a 21,000 seater arena for five-person sport are limited too.
Also, the Bulls weren’t winning.
But even when United’s success did wane, its income didn’t.
In the last ten years, United has continued to increase its revenue substantially without having the same level of sporting dominance.
Its second Champions League and Premier League title double in 2008 proved to be the high watermark.
It won just two league championships after that, the last of which was seven years ago.
The club has even dropped out of Europe’s elite club competition several times during the past decade.
However, off the pitch, the success has continued. In 2018, United were valued at $4.2 billion second only to the Dallas Cowboys, and revenue hit $737 million.
Sponsors have been undeterred by the lack of success and signing up to even bigger deals United’s current kit deal with Adidas is worth £750 million ($949 million).
This might be about to change, because basketball, and the Bulls, are making a comeback.
Bulls bounce back?
Soccer’s dominance over basketball has been one of the reasons the gap between Manchester United and Chicago Bulls grew so large.
In 2010 United were still rated by Forbes as most valuable in the world.
The highest placed basketball team in the top 50, the Los Angeles Lakers, were 49th.
But in the ten years since, the value of NBA teams has increased sixfold.
Last season its 30 teams brought in a record $8.8 billion in revenue, a 10% increase on the previous year.
Basketball is growing, whereas the soccer juggernaut is slowing.
Over the past five years, United’s revenue growth has been less substantial.
There were year-on-year decreases in 2016 and 2018, although the long term trend has been upward.
Last year, Forbes reduced its valuation of the club from $4.2 billion to $3.8 billion in its most recent complete sports listings.
United slipped to sixth on the list, and, 13 places back, were the Chicago Bulls.
Michael Jordan’s old team might be closing the gap, but it is now behind the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors at its own game.
Maybe in ten years, the Bulls will stand toe-to-toe with United once again.
Whether that’s as the two biggest teams in the world is another matter.