Louis van Gaal, Sir Bobby Charlton

Louis van Gaal, left, holds up a Manchester United jersey with soccer great Bobby Charlton while being introduced as the team's new coach Thursday. Chevrolet has paid more than half a billion dollars to have its logo featured prominently on Manchester United's jerseys. (Clive Mason / Getty Images / July 17, 2014)

Chevrolet was once as American as baseball, hot dogs and John Cougar Mellencamp. Which was fine when it sold the majority of its cars and trucks in the U.S.

But two years ago more than 60% of its sales were overseas. And baseball, it turned out, wasn't exactly the global marketing tool Chevy needed to continue that growth.

So to sell to the world the company turned to the world's game, signing a record seven-year, $560-million deal with Manchester United to splash its bow-tie logo across the front of the English soccer club's jerseys.

Chevy's realignment will get its first test drive Wednesday at the Rose Bowl when the bow tie replaces the logo of Aon, a London-based insurance company, on the front of Manchester United's uniforms for a friendly with the Galaxy, the first game on United's four-state preseason tour of the U.S.

"This was always about the fact that it's a global opportunity," said Megan Stooke, director of global marketing for General Motors. "Chevrolet as a global brand is really trying to strengthen our position in a lot of the emerging markets.

"When you look at the fan base of Manchester United, one of the world's most popular sports brands, we saw a great alignment in those markets."

Now other deep-pocketed companies are following in Chevy's tire tracks, betting big money that an association with soccer's most popular club team will pay off.

Last week, for example, Adidas more than doubled the Chevy deal, signing a 10-year, $1.3-billion agreement to provide United with the shirts on which the Chevy logo will be emblazoned. So beginning next season revenue from United's jersey sponsorships alone with bring the team $210 million in annual revenue.

And United has 28 additional sponsors who hawk everything from beer and noodles to tires and office equipment.

Other teams are cashing in too. Under Armour paid $76 million to help outfit English club Tottenham Hotspur while California chip-maker Intel gave Spanish club Barcelona $25 million to put its name and logo inside the players' uniforms. (The outside was already taken by Qatar Airways and Nike for a combined $89 million a season.)

Dunkin' Donuts and Subway, two iconic U.S. brands, also jumped the pond, signing marketing deal with Liverpool and Boston-based owner John Henry.

For most of them the deals were more about good business than good soccer.

"We did not do it for the free tickets," said Gregory Thumm, president of Bulova, United's "official timekeeping partner."

"We didn't sign up because of the sport. Manchester United's five times bigger than the New York Yankees as far as their global footprint. It's hard to fathom that as an American. But they're hugely popular everywhere."

Exactly how popular, however, is in dispute. Richard Arnold, the group managing director for the club, says the team has 660 million fans – half in Asia – and a global TV audience of more than 3 billion. Both figures are almost certainly inflated since it's unlikely one in about every 11 humans is a United supporter or that nearly half the world watches the team's games.

At first the numbers didn't add up for Chevy either, with the automaker firing marketing chief Joel Ewanick shortly after he brokered the jersey deal with United in 2012. But two years later, after a World Cup that broke records for TV viewership around the globe, his successor is making some of the same arguments Ewanick made when he negotiated the contract.

"The fan base is so passionate," Stooke said. "We're wanting to connect emotionally with a brand. We think that this is a great platform for us to really leverage everything we're doing."

The size of the platform is also important. Although the number of fans United has worldwide can be debated, there's little doubt the team is the most popular sports franchise on the planet. And as a result every blog, newspaper picture or televised game can be a boon for the team's sponsors, whose logos quickly become subliminal advertisements that trade on the goodwill generated by the team.

"This is far more effective than doing 120 different advertising campaigns, one for each country where we do business," said David P. Prosperi, vice president of global public relations for Aon, a longtime United sponsor. "And it resonates with clients. It makes the sales cycle a little smoother."

The fact that United, owned by the Glazer family, owners of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has won a record 20 league title probably helps too. As does the team's respectable, button-down image. (The third-most valuable sports franchise in the world, United has never had a player suspended for biting an opponent, a claim neither Liverpool nor Barcelona can make.)

"The value of this sponsorship plays out on many, many levels," Stooke said. "For us brand awareness and the brand association and the positive imagery that comes from being associated with such a strong brand is enormous, especially in those emerging markets. [We] get enormous reach because of the cachet of those players and the appeal that they have and the following that they all have.

"So actually it becomes quite effective on the marketing end because it is so popular."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11