When Manchester City ran out against the Los Angeles Galaxy in June this year, most of the interest at the sold-out Home Depot Center was focused on whether the team had maintained the good form they had found towards the end of the 2010-11 season. Well, on that and a certain former Manchester United player, of course.
But behind the scenes of City's pre-season tour, a second track of work was taking place in tandem with the football on the pitch. During the week that City spent training in the Golden State, officials and players took time out to open up a football pitch for children in a particularly deprived part of the city. That plan has been so successful that City have now been joined by the LA Lakers - California's top basketball outfit - and Disney as partners.
"Some of the families in that community live in vans, not houses, and with both parents working, this kind of project means that there's somewhere safe for kids to go," says Sarah Lynch, the managing director of City in the Community, the club's corporate social responsibility arm. "We've got around 400 kids passing through there every day now."
The Los Angeles park builds on the good work already completed in New York, where the club reached out to a local youth soccer club called Downtown United FC. Jon Stemp, City's chief infrastructure officer, believes that local laws and regulations have conspired to make the construction of a football pitch on a building rooftop in Spanish Harlem more daunting a task than the Etihad Campus itself. That, in itself, is proof of how seriously City appear to be taking their responsibilities.
"In the past, we were a little disjointed from the club, and it wasn't as strategic as it could have been," says Lynch. "I'm sure we didn't go on pre-season tours in the past.Other clubs, perhaps, see the whole issue a little differently. One official, from a team I'd rather not name, told me that he had to go on pre-season tours because 'while we're making so much money off people, we have to soften the blow with CSR'."
The international CSR strategy is not simply about following the first team abroad, though Lynch concedes the attention surrounding overseas tours is a great platform on which to leave a future legacy. In Sierra Leone, for example, the team have tied up with Amani, who runs a local club, purely because a City fan spotted him in the street wearing a Manchester United shirt and decided to have a friendly chat.
City provided the funding for a minibus for Amani's team, which he now contract hires across his local city; the money from the minibus enables Amani to have 55 staff, and by association, to feed the families of those staff members.
The association with ADUG means that there is an assumption that City's CSR programme is run with an unlimited budget, but Lynch says this is not the case.
"We're working towards becoming totally self-funding," she says. "It's important how we spend the money; sometimes people will approach us with interesting but impractical ideas, so we're trying to look at those programmes as Bill Gates does with his foundation - it's got to be transformational, not just ameliorative."
Closer to home, the club has certainly built on its long-standing ties with the local community, which was the main reason City came into existence in the first place. Whether it's via the 200,000 people that the club has helped through its City in the Community Scheme, the 56,000 kids that receive football training at school provided by the club, or the 12,000 enterprise opportunities available, the team's presence has become a lifeline for thousands of families in East Manchester.
Team officials have access to areas where even the police are reluctant to tread, and in the light of the civil unrest across the UK during the summer, Lynch says that the chance of watching City play can give children from underprivileged backgrounds both hope and aspiration.
"Basically, crime is reduced by 30-50 percent when the kids are with us, and we're trying to give them alternative opportunities," she adds. "So they might start to volunteer on a programme and ultimately become a full-time coach, or they might go back to college - one of our lads from Platt Lane is about to become a social worker.
"There are a lot of families here that are only just above the poverty line," Lynch says. "Both parents are normally working to try and keep their heads above water, so they can't afford programmes like this. So the kids can't get out of the house that often, and that can limit their life and social skills, so our schools give them a chance to change all that."
Lynch is also sure that the ownership is fully on board with City's drive towards stronger community responsibility.
"I know they always bear in mind when discussing issues with potential business partners," she says. "When they meet with our big sponsors, for example, I will get people sent to me because there is a feeling that there isn't enough emphasis and drive going on the CSR side, and that tells me that ADUG takes this very seriously.
"When we look back in ten years time, yes, we'll have wanted it to be successful, wanted to have won a lot of trophies," Lynch points out. "But we'll also have wanted to make a difference, and that's true for our owner as well."For all the latest sports news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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