Manchester, historically, used to be viewed as the home of Manchester United, with Manchester City being very much secondary in the minds of football fans outside England. United considered the neighbors as an lesser team, and many would argue, rightly so, considering United’s achievements. Sir Alex Ferguson cited United’s rivals as Liverpool, Arsenal, and Leeds. That speaks volumes of how far Man City were behind the elite of English football. Fast forward to today and Man City is at the top. Not only of English but European football.
Many would simply attribute their recent success to the heavy investment from Abu Dhabi. While that is indeed a factor, it wasn’t as simple as spending a lot of money and achieving success overnight. Similar efforts failed, for example Malaga received a heavy Qatari investment in 2010. Eight years later they were relegated from La Liga. Man City however, did things a bit differently. In fact, it was the rise of the City Football Group behind the scenes that was the key driver of a decade-long, billion-pound revolution at the club changing the footballing landscape forever.
For a long time, City was a club jumping between divisions with a series of relegations and promotions. The league finish then progressively improved as they consistently ended up between mid-table and the lower end of the Premier League table. Until the 1st of September 2008, a date that would forever change the course of history for Manchester City. They were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group, transforming the mid-table Premier League Club into a football powerhouse. On the day that the Group completed the takeover, City signed Robinho for a then club-record fee of over 30 million pounds – immediately highlighting the intention of the new owners. They went on to spend another 270 million Pounds on players such as Vincent Company, Pablo Zabaleta, Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli and Carlo Tevez. However, the first success didn’t come before they signed a new manager Roberto Mancini. With him, the club signed more high-profile players, qualified for the Champions League for the first time, and won the FA Cup. The first major trophy in 35 years.
But they weren’t done. The group continued to invest. Mancini signed Sergio Aguero for 38 million Pounds among others. In 2012 City won their final six matches of the season and secured their first title in 44 years. In the following years, City continued their rise winning more Premier League Titles, FA and League cups. Now this may all seem like it was down to almost 2 billion pounds of investment. And yes – the investment from Abu Dhabi indeed played a huge part. However, as we mentioned, there is more happening in the background. The success that City have had over the last decade would likely not have occurred if it was not for the rise of a company in the background. The City Football Group took the club to new heights – not only because they spend tons of money but because they pioneered a strategy never seen before in the World of Football.
There are three key players in the success of Manchester city. The two that dominate the headlines are Sheikh Mansour Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi and Khaldoon al-Mubarak – a youthful executive and advisor to the royal family. Very much simplified – those two bring the money. But money doesn’t bring success if you don’t know how to spend it. You need a strategy to go along with the cash. Enter the third player: Ferran Soriano. As former vice president and finance director of Barcelona, Soriano had bold plans to build the first truly global football organization. He attempted to do something that other clubs like his former employer had never wanted to do, and that is to set up franchise clubs in other countries. He highlighted the role and potential of franchising in football along with the contribution that merchandise could make to club revenues. His idea was to create a corporation that would have a mixture of a global brand such as Manchester city and many local brands developing talent through a network of clubs that would provide a pipeline of players for City. More importantly, he foresaw the convergence of Entertainment and Sport in a globalized world. Soriano observed the potential of the link between the growth of a big club’s worldwide fan bases and their transformation to global entertainment companies instead of simply being promoters of local events. To realize this long-term vision, the City Football Group was created in 2013. A corporation that included a conglomerate of clubs from all over the world. CFG already owns or co-owns 10 clubs on five continents including the contracts of hundreds of professional players as well as carefully picked talents.
In 2014 they spent 150 million pounds to build a new first-team training and youth development facility known as the City Football Academy. CFG will scout the globe for players refining and shaping them in such state-of-the-art academies across several continents selling them on or sending the best to the clubs it will own. An example would be this: Using the network of clubs players may progress from Club Atletico Torque to Girona FC to Manchester City before ending their careers in India at Mumbai City, China at Sichuan Jiuniu, or the US at New York City. Through this integrated network, players will be more comfortable with the style of other CFG clubs, those clubs will have insider information on the players while transfer income will end up back in a single corporate pot. This draws similarities with the Red Bull franchise consisting of Salzburg, New York, Leipzig, and Bragantino. Multi-team ownership groups have become a rising force changing the future of football. In that sense, CFG was a groundbreaking venture.
Buying clubs and developing players in different continents, sharing scouting and medical data across borders but also enticing the involvement of sponsors and spreading the City name across the globe. So besides the on-pitch benefits the club network provides CFG with the ability to further develop the commercial presence and fan engagement, CFG has continued its expansion into new digital technologies. For instance, the development of its Cityzens Membership Platform and the club’s involvement in the Amazon TV series, All or Nothing becoming the first football club to feature on the hit series. This is just one example of CFG’s influence as a pioneer of content evolution.
Manchester City have also launched its own over-the-top streaming subscription service, partnered with Intel to trial the company’s Trueview immersive viewing technology and most recently became the first team to create their own channel on YouTube kids. CFG has also invested in Sapphire Sport. A venture capital fund. Focused on technology and digital sports, the fund plans to make between five and six startup investments each year. This way CFG benefits by exploring E-Sports, Digital Health, and Next Generation Media – all fitting seamlessly into Soriano’s vision of CFG as the hub of entertainment and sport. The rise of CFG has been monumental. But it hasn’t been without fails. The Australian league introduced new rules after CFG circumvented the league’s ban on transfer fees between clubs. City bought a local player outbidding Australian clubs by paying a transfer fee before loaning him straight to Melbourne. The league responded by banning the practice for the first year after signing. City had a two-year ban from the Champions League for serious breach of UEFA’s financial fair play rules – which never happened because it was overturned by the court of arbitration for sport. However, the club was nonetheless fined 9 million pounds for failing to cooperate with the investigations by UEFA.
With the growth of CFG comes scrutiny to the major shareholders in Abu Dhabi. The allegations of human rights violations of migrant construction workers in the country along with the region’s attitude to LGBT and women’s rights have already impacted the company.
They were planning to build a New York City FC stadium on parkland in Queens, but public opposition prevented them from doing so due to these concerns.
There have been clubs completely transformed by financially powerful owners before Sheikh Mansour’s arrival. But none like Manchester City. The last decade represents a story of success, growth, and remarkable off-field development. The City Football Group now boasts a valuation of 4.8 billion Dollars. Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group have invested heavily in Manchester City, but the success of the club globally cannot be placed solely on their investment. CFG is a paradigm of a 21st-century football business combining the various sectors of money, entertainment, and technology. As Soriano himself stated: At CFG football is often the means to an end not just an end itself. Both sides agreed that City should aspire to being the world’s top club. A position long held by either Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United.
With the backing of Mansour and Mubarak, Soriano is now upending football’s established order by building its first true multinational corporation. The Disney of football that other clubs might look to emulate for decades to come.