Manchester City: The Blue Moon finally rises

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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?

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