There was surreal moment shortly after Manchester City had won the Premier League last Sunday. The cameras panned to the rock star Liam Gallagher, high up in the corporate boxes. A lifelong City fan, and seen by many as “the coolest man on the planet”, the crowd went wild with delight as his grinning face appeared on the gigantic video screens.
But it was only the second loudest cheer of the day. That came a few minutes later when the cameras focused on a banner that read: “Thank you, Sheikh Mansour.”
Who would thought it? Not me, certainly not in September 2008 when Arabian Business first broke the story of Abu Dhabi United Group’s takeover of the club, funded by HH Sheikh Mansour. A good deal, I thought. Should get some good publicity for Abu Dhabi, and maybe one day this struggling club will start to do well. Less than four years on, Sheikh Mansour has been elevated to hero status. I was at the match on Sunday, and was struck by the genuine and overwhelming warmth being shown towards the Abu Dhabi executives and sponsors who have bankrolled the club.
But the big question of course is, has it been worth the near billion dollars spent on the club? The club’s many rivals would give an instant no. They have continued to argue since September 2008 that Manchester City is buying success, nothing more, nothing less.
Well, let’s look at the figures. Since ADUG bought the club from Thaksin Shinawatra, the total amount spent on players is estimated at $697m. Around $142m has come back from player sales.
Roman Abramovich spent $562m on new players during his first four years in charge of Chelsea, when he took over in 2003. And he only recouped $78m from player sales. I don’t remember anyone claiming the Russian had bought success back then (the club won two consecutive titles in 2005 and 2006) — and don’t forget, the value of players was considerably less in 2003 than today. Liverpool spent $181m on new players in the last year alone. But the team has flopped. Yet no one is accusing the club of buying failure.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has been the biggest critic of City’s spending, though he chooses not to remember that his own club smashed the British transfer record three times in seven years, to sign Andy Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand between 1995 and 2002. And they did rather well on the pitch as a result.
What Sheikh Mansour has done, in terms of player spending, is neither unusual nor over the top. He’s done what everyone else once did, but just done it better.
Much has also been said about the ten year stadium naming deal by Etihad Airways, which depending on who you believe, was worth anything from $200m to $400m. Whatever the real figure, the far more important point is that much of that cash is being used to develop East Manchester, one of the most deprived areas of the UK. A report from the Save the Children charity last year claimed that levels of child poverty in the city had reached 27 percent, amongst the highest in the country.
Around 200 acres of land is now being turned into the Etihad Campus. There will be seventeen pitches, a 7,000 capacity stadium and the ability to host 400 youth team players. Nearly 200 much needed jobs have been created in the process. Despair has turned into decent prospects. Add to that the club’s international CSR strategy from LA to Sierra Leone, and there is much to be proud of.
I was on the same flight back from Manchester as Etihad boss James Hogan. Speaking to him and other executives involved with the club, one thing is clear: This isn’t just about buying or sponsoring a football team which you hope will do well. This is about helping rebuild a city. And so far, they are making a pretty good job of it.
Anil Bhoyrul is the Editorial Director of Arabian Business.