It is an exciting time to be a Manchester City fan. The club’s relatively new-found success on the pitch is being matched by its activity off the field, the global brand is growing and one of the oldest clubs in the country is set to be a formidable force in the English game, as well as Deloitte’s Football Money League, for years to come.
Despite almost comically high levels of financial mismanagement in the industry, football clubs have an immediate advantage over other businesses in the form of an unwavering, arguably fanatical customer base. Where companies work to build towards the long-term support of their clientele, football clubs have it handed to them every time a child’s football shirt is bought by a parent looking to mould their infant in their own image.
For marketers, the rapidly evolving business models of football clubs are fascinating, if an accountants worst nightmare. Wage bills can equate to upwards of two-thirds of turnover and, in many cases, the expensively assembled squads depreciate in value exponentially. It is the brand that keeps clubs afloat.
And Manchester City’s brand has had something of a renaissance in the past decade. After success in the 1960s and 1970s, the club hit difficult times as their noisy red neighbours, Manchester United, soared to prominence. Manchester United’s shadow loomed over City, as it did the rest of the Premier League, but the tide has turned. Thanks to investment, success on the pitch and the creation of the City Football Group (CFG), the club are part of one of the sport’s global powerhouses.
In August 2008 the Abu Dhabi United Group bought a football club in a state of financial disrepair with the promise of building a club capable of rivalling their neighbours. Success was by no means immediate, though. A flurry of less-than inspiring and more-than costly signings saw the side finish 10th - three places behind Fulham, as difficult as that is to imagine - in their inaugural season as financial giants. But something was stirring in north-west England, and the sense that the heights achieved by Chelsea just years earlier could be replicated.
Chelsea’s international brand was fairly well established even before Roman Abramovich’s oily millions, with their London location and propensity to sign European talent ahead of the curve making them an intriguing prospect for any potential buyer. City have had to work a little harder to build a truly global brand. And work they have, rocketing from 20th in the Deloitte Football Money League in 2007/08 to 6th in 2014/15, an astronomical rise owing to some innovative and rather brilliant decisions behind the scenes.
Asset collection has been fast, effective and, for rival clubs, intimidating. CFG’s network of clubs includes the likes of New York City FC - a brand new, legend-adorned MLS offering - and Melbourne City FC. CFG are also estimated to hold a 20% stake in Yokohama F. Marinos, one of the J-League’s most successful clubs, completing the trio of perhaps the three fastest-emerging markets in football. CFG are currently consolidating the model already in place, but many look to add further clubs in the future as the long-term strategy begins paying dividends.
Branding has been meticulous, with the New York and Melbourne incarnations sporting the same sky-blue strip as their UK forebears - a marker of prestige for the smaller clubs adorned by it, according to Tom Glick, who was recently announced as the president of New York City FC. The clubs currently share access to centralized resources based in the UK - marketing, finance, IT etc. - and the coaching is even highly co-ordinated, with the remit of producing ‘beautiful, possession-based football’ shared across the network of clubs, according to Brian Marwood, a Manchester City executive. Ferran Soriano, CEO of CFG and Manchester City FC also mentioned that, ‘With this structure we’re doing something that has never been done before…That means you have to take risks, innovate and not be afraid to try new things. There is no limit to what we can achieve’.
City’s digital marketing is unparalleled in the English game, too. No Premier League club can match their 569,000+ youtube subscribers and their behind-the-scenes content is second to none, with their regular videos involving players, tunnel footage and training ground insight more often than not sponsored by their partners. City Football Services - one of their subsidiaries - is experimenting with the latest player performance analysis thanks to a deal struck with software solutions firm SAP. Not only will the technology be used to optimize team performance and facilitate data sharing across the club network, but it will work directly with the social media team to generate content, such as live statistics while the game is in progress, to engage fans across mediums. Not all of the innovative moves will bear fruit, but no stone is being left unturned in the production of a truly unified global brand.
As Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson put it, if Manchester United is a ‘branded house’, Manchester City is a ‘house of brands’. From bungalow to stately home, the apparent 400 million-strong worldwide fanbase is set to be exploited to full effect. In 2015, China Media Group acquired a 13% stake in CFG, a $400 million investment that sees Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi group effectively recoup their initial investment. CFG is now valued at $3 billion - roughly the same as the neighbouring footballing royalty of United - and, as the MLS and the Australian A-League continue to grow, the power balance in one of England’s most historic footballing cities could shift further towards the east.