vodafone

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LONDON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Mobile phone giant Vodafone cut short a four-year shirt sponsorship deal with Manchester United on Wednesday and switched its allegiance to Europe's premier club competition, the Champions League.

The world's largest mobile phone company by revenue and Britain's most famous soccer club said the current deal, worth about 9.0 million pounds ($15.5 million) per year, would end two years early at the end of the 2005/2006 season.

Vodafone said it would then start a three-year partnership with European soccer's ruling body, under which the company will offer video highlights and goal alerts from all Champions League matches to football fans who have its latest high-speed, third-generation (3G) mobile phones.

Ironically, United are in danger of missing out on the knock-out stages of the Champions League, a major money-earner for the club, for the first time in 10 years this season.

Wednesday's news comes five days after United captain Roy Keane departed in mid-season after 12 years at the club.

United was taken over by American billionaire Malcolm Glazer this year and a spokesman for the Glazer family said it was "extremely comfortable" with Vodafone's decision to "change the priority of its marketing strategy".

The Champions League is watched by more than four billion television viewers per season around the world.

INVESTORS MEETING

United fans had urged Vodafone at its annual investors' meeting in July to end the sponsorship deal as a way of protesting about Glazer's 790 million pound takeover.

Vodafone and United said they were keen to continue their relationship, which began with a four-year, 30 million pound deal in 2000/01, and were exploring a new sponsorship deal.

Vodafone first put its name on the famous red shirts of the club in 2000/1 and are only the second company since 1982 to be the club's shirt sponsors.

United said in a separate statement that initial discussions with a number of "world class potential partners" had been encouraging and that the club was confident of securing a new deal for a principal sponsor in coming months.

"The Manchester United shirt is the most iconic in sport," said the club's commercial director Andy Anson. "The club feels that, in the current market, there is a genuine chance to attract significant additional investment."

Glazer's takeover infuriated United fans who said he would milk United's profits to pay back the vast amounts of debt he used to buy the northern club.

Calls for a boycott have largely been ignored although fans are concerned United could go a second season without a major trophy and pressure is growing on United manager Alex Ferguson, in charge since 1986.
 
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