Manuel Pellegrini’s impressive setup at the Etihad Stadium had—for a good few months—his City team the runaway top scorers in England, which are currently looking to secure a domestic double with the League Cup already in their hands.
From the outside, City seems like the archetypal sugar-daddy story: After all, didn’t Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and now AS Monaco go down the same path of sudden fame, fortune and success because of mega-rich owners?
That City’s newfound prestige—and that their starting XI boasts the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero—is down to the money injected into the club by their Abu Dhabi owners is undeniable, and in some quarters perhaps spoken of negatively and cynically.
But a quick look at their off-field projects, initiatives and business developments suggests City aren’t just in this for the short term, and they’re not just around to pick up a few trophies.
Manchester City mean business, and they’re well on their way to building a global footballing empire.
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Building a City around their fans
From their well-known support of the club even during their lowly third-tier days to their fanatical celebration of a first-ever Premier League title after a 44-year drought, Manchester City fans have long been famous for their undying support.
So it was only right for any City management to focus on their fans—and to their credit, this is exactly what they’ve done.
As fan engagement started to go digital and social media started to take off, City were one of the first clubs to fully embrace these new channels, and as such became one of the pioneers in this arena among the football industry. (Michael da Silva of Alpha Magazine has more in this excellent write-up.)
Along the way, they’ve picked up their fair share of accolades, and for good reason.
Besides their long-admired Twitter channel, they have also become known for offering one of the most comprehensive YouTube librariesin all of football: Their “Inside City” and “Tunnel Cam” series are a rare breath of fresh air in an industry where much of the behind-the-scenes content remain proprietary and available only on paid subscriptions.
By putting their fans in the center of an all-inclusive, fun and interactive social media strategy, Manchester City have hit the jackpot—and their success has encouraged them to strike up innovative and interesting partnerships to take such marketing and fan engagement methods to the next level.
Take their collaboration with GoPro—known for their work with Red Bull Stratos and Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking free fall from the edge of space—last year, for example.
Announced in August 2013, the GoPro tie-up was a groundbreaking look into “what it’s like to train and play like a professional footballer.” A slight exaggeration, perhaps, given that players wouldn’t have worn the cameras during competitive games—but their viewer numbers of more than two million to date have more than paid off.
Prior to that, their May 2013 partnership with Cisco and O2 turned the Etihad Stadium into the “Premier League’s most technologically fan-friendly stadium,” allowing fans to fully immerse themselves into the digital world while watching a live match unfold before them.
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Transforming the City of Manchester
The City of Manchester means a lot to the football club in two different ways.
The first is obvious: Their landmark deal in 2011 with Etihad Airways, which, according to Daniel Taylor of the Guardian, was worth awhopping £400 million, renamed the City of Manchester Stadium to the Etihad Stadium it is known as now.
It was also the largest sponsorship deal in sports at the time and showed the financial powerhouse that Manchester City Football Club were becoming—and the raw commercial potential they had in abundance.
But while the sponsorship arrangement was momentous, arguably more important was what the owners and related stakeholders had in mind for the city of Manchester itself.
The £400 million partnership had significant funds earmarked for the continued development of the Etihad Campus, an area of land around the stadium including a fans’ village and other training facilities. When they put pen to paper on the landmark deal, the landscape and the immediate vicinity was instantly changed.
Two-and-a-half years since he announced the deal, Taylor revisited the topic and wrote more extensively on the “changing football landscape” in Manchester this February (via the Guardian).
With the Etihad Campus due to start its operations within six months and the redeveloped area to include “16 other pitches, accommodation for players, apartments for relatives, a medical center, a boardman, a media theater,” this is truly the beginning of an exciting new era at Manchester City. (The Telegraph have more on the training facility plans here.)
In conjunction with this is the vision at the boardroom level, where Mansour set out a model to incorporate a sustainable future in his plans for the club, which led him to the long-awaited appointment of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, both instrumental to Barcelona’s dynasty under Pep Guardiola.
The Barcelona blueprint was instrumental and central to Manchester City’s own footballing approach, according to Sid Lowe of the Guardian, and has begun to work its magic. As reported by the Independent, Patrick Vieira, the ex-Arsenal legend, was chosen last summer to move from his position as football development executive to head up City’s new elite development squad, who have been flying high in the under-21 Premier League this season.
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Cities abroad: A global empire
As Manchester City’s youth players go through a one-club development philosophy and prepare to graduate to first-team level, City’s groundwork has been laid at the local level. Prepare to arm Manuel Pellegrini with a squad that can compete at the top of the European game in the coming years.
Whenever it comes to empire building, the next logical step after sorting out the local setup is to look global.
And City first hit the headlines for their worldwide ambitions with their foray into the United States’ Major League Soccer, joining up with Major League Baseball team, the New York Yankees, to establish New York City FC as MLS’s 20th franchise, as confirmed via SI.com.
Besides forming a fresh new local rivalry with the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC will also be commissioning a brand new football-specific stadium in the Bronx area, according to the Guardian, while also boasting the highly rated American coach Jason Kreis as their first manager.
They weren’t content with moving to just one continent, either, and in January this year, City confirmed, via the Guardian, they would be dipping their feet into the Australian market with their acquisition of A-League side Melbourne Heart.
These two acquisitions and expansions have been branded as “strategic” investments in two of the fastest-growing football nations: City will have had one eye on their revenue streams and profit margins when they decided to move ahead with these bold ventures.
But just as they’ve done at home, City also have a one-of-a-kind opportunity waiting in front of them, the kind of opportunity that will only present itself to those with the resources and long-term vision to make it happen.
If Mansour and his management team continue their good work in the city of Manchester and decide to invest in boosting the footballing infrastructures in both New York and Melbourne, not only will they develop their new football clubs, but they might also have a defining say in the footballing growth of the US and Australia.
The potential and the possibilities of a Manchester City football empire are as tantalizing as they are awe-inspiring.
They’ve already gone back to their roots: In a classic fan-centric move, New York City FC have released two winning designs for their club badge and put them up for a public vote among their fans.
We can’t wait to see what’s next.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League, and occasionally on football business.