Just hours before the sale of Manchester City was completed in September 2008, the club’s previous owner Thaksin Shinawatra was in buoyant mood. Not because he had managed to sell the club to the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) led by Sheikh Mansour for upwards of $200m, but because he had managed to hold on to a ten percent stake in the club.
“They wanted to me to sell 100 percent, but I wouldn’t. My ten percent will be worth five times today’s value in four years time. These people are serious, they will build an incredible business both on and off the pitch,” he told Arabian Business at the time.
Legal problems meant Shinawatra would shortly afterwards be forced to dispel of his remaining ten percent stake. And how he must regret that, as his forecast couldn’t have been more accurate. Last Sunday, Manchester City won their first Premier League title in 44 years, sending their fans delirious in the process. ADUG’s goal of putting Abu Dhabi on the global map has more than succeeded — the stadium has been renamed the Etihad Stadium. Etisalat and Aabar are major sponors and fans hold aloft huge banners in praise of Sheikh Mansour.
Far more ominously for City’s Premier League rivals, the club now ranks as the most improved football brand over the course of 2011. Brand Finance’s annual rankings showed that the City brand was now the eleventh most valuable brand in football — up from nineteenth last year — with a value that had almost doubled to $168m. City are steadily creeping up on their arch-rivals, Manchester United, who regained the top spot with a brand value of $644m.
It’s all emblematic of the change that has been brought about since ADUG took over the club; while the world outside has been fixated on petrodollars, a quiet revolution has taken place in Manchester.
From a corporate perspective, the changes that have taken place are immediately apparent. The club’s non-player staff are now comfortably housed in a new block separate from the stadium, and a new human resources department has been put into operation. More focus is being given to innovative branding deals, such as that with EA Sports, which will see City players take on a more prominent role in the developer’s blockbuster FIFA Soccer franchise. The club is also looking to double the number of retailers which sell branded merchandise, and aircraft repainted in Manchester City livery fly around the world at a cost to the club of just $800 a week. Altogether, 35 separate infrastructure projects — from those based in Manchester to elsewhere around the world — have been completed in the last two years. More than the physical changes, a shift in mindset is most obviously apparent.
“Yes, we’re all excited about what goes on on the football pitch, but unfortunately, if you were to make business decisions based on the outcome of a sports event, you’d find yourself on a pretty volatile rollercoaster,” says Brian Marwood, the club’s chief football affairs officer. “You wouldn’t be able to plan for the future. So we try and divorce the two — one is very short term, extremely volatile and unpredictable, and the other one has to encompass some consistency and continuity.”
Looking back to the day of ADUG’s takeover, club officials recall that time, not money, or players, has been the most vital commodity. How long will it take to bring success to the club, especially since a sustainable platform of results appears to have been impossible to achieve for four decades? Can we get there in ten years, or five years, or three?
“The plan that we put forward in the first phase was one of ‘fix and build,” says Marwood. “So if it was broken, it needed fixing, and if we didn’t have it yet, we had to build. Our initial focus was very much about creating a first team that was capable of competing for domestic honours and importantly, for qualification into the European Champions League.”
Job done, in that respect — but why the fuss over the Champions’ League? The reasons are two-fold; prestige and money. The 2009-2010 edition of Europe’s top club tournament saw the 32 clubs taking part share a colossal prize-money pool of just over $1bn, derived from performance-related payments and revenue from the television market.
The winner that year, Bayern Munich, took $66m in prize money. For City, that sizeable television revenue will be funnelled straight back into club development. And as the first stage of the City project is successfully completed by winning the Premiership, it’s clear that a chapter is being closed on the litany of player purchases — made specifically to get the team into the Champions’ League at the earliest possible point — that have made the club headline news across the world. A total of 24 top-level players were brought in over the course of a year, which equates to one every two weeks.
“Over time, the next phase is that next level down — so where is the next Lionel Messi, how old is he today?” says Marwood. “So our focus is far less on the senior squad, the finished product, and is more about developing asset strategy. When we look at the teenage kids we’re bringing in, they have the opportunity to go to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal. We’re all looking at the same players, and I think the last five additions to our development squad have all been world-class under-20 players — so that’s the sign, really.”
But it would be wrong to suggest that, even with City’s deep pockets, the process of buying new players was easy. Marwood points out that potential sellers were well aware that the club was on a short-term buying assignment, and that a premium was probably paid — like in any corporate field — in an attempt to entice other teams’ core assets to the Etihad Stadium. He estimates that of the recent purchases, the club had to walk away from “three or four” targets due to the over-high valuations slapped on them. But Marwood is also very keen to point out that City’s spending has actually had a beneficial effect on English football.
“We’ve been a good addition to the industry, and sometimes people forget that,” he points out. “There’s always an investor — whether it’s in the world of property or banking — and there’s always someone fuelling growth. So you could, say, look at Arsenal, who have sold us in excess of $95m worth of footballers, which in turn means they can afford to go and buy players, which means they are fuelling the football family.
“Sometimes you have to be thankful there’s economic growth, and you have to be thankful that at any point in time, there’s an investor. A few years ago it was Chelsea, and let’s not forget that Spurs and Manchester United have all played their part over the last few years. We just happened to do it in a very condensed period of time,” Marwood adds.
For City’s staff members, the ties with ADUG appear to run deep. Each of the employees interviewed by Arabian Business makes it clear that they hold the reputation of Sheikh Mansour’s investment in their hands, and that it’s a responsibility that they take seriously.
“We have a very clear vision of social responsibility, we have a critical path that we follow in that area,” Marwood adds. “Youth development is very much a part of the future, so sustainability and success will be over the long term, not the short term. Leadership is about taking people to the unknown and that’s what we’re doing.”
City’s rapid growth appears to have chimed well with its fanbase. Always known for their die-hard support, the average fan was older than the league average (68 percent were over the age of 35 at the time of the ADUG takeover), and surveys carried out by City staff showed that most of those fans didn’t even enjoy the matchday experience. Four years on, and that experience has been voted independently as the best in the Premier League. Fan reaction on websites such as Blue Moon has changed from apathy and despondency to hope and appreciation of a new sense of community involvement from the club. There is considerable appreciation, also, for the role that Sheikh Mansour and the executive management have played in the club’s meteoric rise. And as the club starts the process of giving its owner a return on its considerable investment, the future looks very, very bright.
“We’ve got a very good story, and I think that sometimes people forget that the case for the story is a business case,” Marwood says. “It’s a story of lifting something up by its bootstraps, picking up, and moving on — and, with the help of ADUG, it’s been pretty good.”
After last Sunday’s victory, nobody could argue with him.
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