Etihad has refused to deny the story, fuelling mounting speculation that the airline is close to securing a major deal with one of the English Premier League's top clubs. In the last few weeks rumours have also linked Etihad with reigning European champions Liverpool.
The Times newspaper said that United is speaking to Etihad, as well as other potential suitors, after an offer believed to be worth around Dh52 million (£8 million) a year was made. United is likely to press for more money, as this amount is Dh6.5 million (£1million) less than Vodafone is currently paying. Vodafone brought to an end its Dh234 million (£36 million) sponsorship deal with the club last month by exercising a break clause mid-way through the four-year contract.
A spokesperson for Abu Dhabi-based Etihad yesterday said that the airline could not comment beyond reiterating that "it is in preliminary discussions with a number of sporting organisations" and is "reviewing opportunities with regard to sports sponsorship in order to further the airline's international reach." The company could not reveal the "specific nature of the discussions as meetings have been purely exploratory so far", the spokesperson added, but hopes to make a further announcement "in the near future." The airline is trying to boost its profile in Britain as the Abu Dhabi government embarks on a huge drive to promote the emirate as a tourist destination. It is planning to start daily flights between Manchester and Abu Dhabi from March next year.
United's global brand would therefore be highly attractive to Etihad, although the team was recently knocked out of the European Cup at the group stage and is lagging nine points behind leaders Chelsea in the league.
Liverpool's renaissance under Spanish manager Rafael Benitez may prove of sufficient appeal, with the club having last season sealed the European Cup for the fifth time. Like Man United, Liverpool has a global fan base, notably in Asia and the Far East. It is also building a new stadium, though naming it after a sponsor would be likely to provoke a hostile reaction from supporters.
If successful in tying up a deal with a leading English club, Etihad would follow in the footsteps of fellow UAE airline Emirates. The Dubai airline recently sealed a deal with Arsenal to sponsor both its new stadium and shirts from the 2006/07 season.
This followed an announcement by league champions Chelsea this autumn that it will not be extending its contract with Emirates at the end of this season. No one at Liverpool was available for comment, while Man United said that it does not comment on speculation.
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