By Ed Attwood
Etihad Campus' 200-odd acres of opportunity may be a new heart for one of Britain's poorest communities
"For me, the most exciting part of the new sponsorship deal is the Etihad Campus,” says Brian Marwood, Manchester City’s chief football operations director. “When I go to the table to sign players, I’m not selling them a cabinet full of trophies, I’m selling them a dream. And when I show them what the Etihad Campus will look like, it's going to blow them away.”
Signed earlier this year, Etihad’s branding deal with City has widely been reported as the biggest football sponsorship deal in history. But the contract is unique in ways other than the estimated price tag. The spotlight may have been trained on the shirt and the renaming of the new Etihad Stadium, but for executives at both the airline and the football club, Manchester City’s newest project is set to provide far greater long-term value.
City chief infrastructure officer Jon Stemp, who is coordinating the planning and development of the campus calls it, simply, “200-odd acres of opportunity”. And the plan itself is pretty simple; buy up the post-industrial brownfield site adjacent to what is now the Etihad Stadium and transform that area into the best football training facility in the world.
But the campus isn’t just the usual cluster of pitches, gyms and medical centres that you’ll find at other Premier League clubs. There will be 17 pitches, and a 7,000 capacity stadium for youth team players, which, to put it into perspective, is bigger than some third-tier English clubs’ full capacity. The development will also host 400 youth team players, who will be schooled and housed onsite.
Needless to say, pictures of the project caused something of a stir in the local press when they were released in September. But there were no real surprises; the club had done its homework by putting its suggestions out to the community via a six-week consultation period. More than 7,000 residents and interested parties visited the consultation space, feedback from whom showed a 98 percent approval rating.
“We spent three years trying to keep a lid on what we are doing in East Manchester, because we didn’t want to raise expectation before we knew we could do it,” says Stemp. “We first started looking at it about six or eight weeks into ownership, because we knew that what we had wasn’t right very early on.
So before the architect’s pen had even touched the paper, City officials travelled to four continents, visiting over 30 of the world’s top sporting facilities over a two-year period. After that period of due diligence, the team then drew up technical requirement briefs and got the architects involved, but Stemp points out that Etihad will be fully involved in the final make-up of the project.
“In the campus are a stadium, training facility and a community village,” he says. “So those are three given things out of four large areas. One large area and part of our training facility are still to be figured out.
“So we would imagine that together we will develop a really good brand proposition for what the Etihad Campus is going to be. We’ll develop a prospectus and there will be new partners that will come in and live in the place. So it’s still in its formative stage; it’s still not completely defined, but that’s the way it should be.”
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From the employment perspective, around 160 jobs will be created - 70 percent of them for local people - during the construction process, while another 90 positions will also be on offer - 80 percent of them for locals - after the development is complete. In addition to the sports facilities, there will also be around five acres on offer for the local community to use, which could include a swimming pool.
Officials say that the campus will also reach the highest possible environmental standards, with low carbon, low water and low waste measures being employed to minimise the impact on the local environment and encourage biodiversity. One could easily question why City are investing so heavily in land which actually has a negative property value due to its previous usage. But Stemp is in no doubt that the move represents a continuation of the club’s fight to regenerate a stressed community, which was actually why City came into being 130 years ago.
“Commercially, the redevelopment of this area is not an easy prospect,” adds Stemp. “Having said that, there’s a certain genius and brilliance about what’s happening because the football club always came from this community, and there’s something true and authentic about the way we are going to regenerate East Manchester through the football club.”
From the wider perspective, the club can certainly consider themselves lucky that nearby land is available for regeneration. A quick look at the other Premier League clubs show that most are keen to expand, but lack the geographical resources in which to do so.
Take Liverpool, for example. Given the lack of space around Anfield, plans have been in the pipeline for years to build a separate stadium - plus facilities - in nearby Stanley Park. London teams Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are also considering moving away from their homes to sites with more scope for extra capacity.
It seems that Etihad’s role in the launch of the new campus is only the beginning as far as partners for the project are concerned.
"There's very little opportunity for partnership if we know exactly what it's going to be, and our partners just have their name on it," says Stemp. "That doesn't really give them the opportunity to bring their excellence and creativity to the table. So, in addition to Etihad, there will be a number of other tenants and partners who will come and live here and make it a special place to come."
But one issue looks far more certain; if all goes well, the campus could end up being the heart of a whole new community.
“Investment in East Manchester will create a new beacon of hope that we hope will have a ripple effect,” Stemp adds.
“There will be new tenants, and new people. And from that comes a sustainable proposition – that means we don’t just have people coming to our location for the 30 games a year that take place in the stadium. We want people to come here for the other 300 days as well, and we have to create a meaningful reason to come.”
Money talks so they say, but not without vision, planning and the ability to execute. The research and planning phase of this project is impresssive in its scope and the project will, no doubt, be a great boost to the local economy. We also hope that it means that more deserving talent will get the patient nurturing it requires and that the club can develop its own players like Barca have done with their La Masia model where team mates have a special bond having come up through the ranks together. The Barca model is also special because the club has a well-defined style of play that all its players are schooled in from a young age which creates a cohesive team ethic.
Meanwhile, those other clubs without the same financial resources can only look on with envy. Only recently, Frank de Boor was lamenting the fact that Ajax has become a feeder club for the richer super clubs.
It is a great time to be a City fan and no one can begrudge them that, having been loyal and patient for decades.