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At Large: Manchester City’s global spread of soft power could inspire action outside soccer

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly sees no limit on big clubs' desire to cross-pollinate.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Manchester City’s global spread of soft power could inspire action outside soccer

So Manchester City hit seven for the second time in a few weeks the other night. Both cases gave evidence of the financial resources at the Premier League champions’ disposal, and the single-mindedness with which that cash is disposed.

We all know well enough that the soft-shoed, hard-nosed outfit that tore through Germany’s Schalke 04 at the Etihad Stadium are only the advance unit of one of the most ambitious projects in club soccer. Last month City Football Group (CFG) added a seventh team to its now sprawling global portfolio, third-tier Chinese side Sichuan Jiuniu, and its appetite is far from sated.

An Indian addition is now the priority, with City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners already presiding over teams in Spain, the US, Australia, Japan, and Uruguay as well as England.
“As we see it now, there is a natural pace of growth that we will follow that takes us to more than seven teams, but not 100 teams,” said Ferran Soriano, the Manchester City chief executive, in a conversation with Sky Sports last week.  

“I cannot see ten years ahead but the group might have two or three teams more. Is this going to change in five years and we're going to have more? Maybe, I don't know that.

“But to complete the vision that we had six years ago, I think we will have maybe two or three clubs more.”

Exactly what that vision was can’t be defined too pithily, but the CFG initiative is one of those modern industry concepts that elicits a nod and a wince all at once. Essentially, it is creating a network for knowledge-sharing, talent identification and distribution, the amplification of marketing and a broader platform for sponsorship and media activities. It also operates as a series of centres of soft power for Abu Dhabi, widening the effect beyond a single high-profile hub, and opens up potential avenues past rules designed to put competitive limits on financial advantages.

Exactly what its vision is can’t be defined too pithily, but the CFG initiative is one of those modern industry concepts that elicits a nod and a wince all at once

Manchester City, incidentally, are currently the subject of investigations by Fifa, Uefa, the Football Association (FA) and the Premier League into potential breaches of recruitment and Financial Fair Play rules.

For all the scale of the CFG project, however, it is not unique or unprecedented. In an era where professional teams increasingly see themselves as media companies and even tech incubators, with the business models to match, partnerships and investments between them are an increasingly important part of the mix. Even beyond the kind of cross-code ownership groups common in US sport for many years, there are hints of a burgeoning ecosystem.  

City would be the second major European team to make a significant investment in an Indian soccer team. Atletico Madrid were a founding co-owner of Indian Super League side Atletico de Kolkata – known as ATK since the Spanish club sold their stake to businessman Sanjiv Goenka in 2017. But the most intriguing trend to watch may well be the effect of well-heeled teams taking a financial interest in other sports.

CFG’s own New York City FC, of course, boast baseball’s New York Yankees as a minority owner, while Manchester City’s humbled Tuesday night opponents are active in the industry’s most talked-about sector. FC Schalke 04 Esports compete in the League of Legends European Championships, and represent one of the most obviously visible examples of esports investment by traditional sports teams. The Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers are among those with financial interests in League of Legends teams alone.

CFG’s own New York City FC, of course, boast baseball’s New York Yankees as a minority owner

But it is back in traditional sport where the impact of cross-discipline spending by teams could one day be most significant, not least in rising franchise leagues and unfamiliar territories. Here in the UK, two clubs from rugby union’s top-tier Gallagher Premiership have invested in franchises in the Netball Superleague – with Saracens taking a 50 per cent stake in the Mavericks last year after Wasps had launched their own side in 2016. League bosses remain open to further interest from rugby and soccer clubs in their efforts to achieve full professionalisation in the medium term.   

The European club model, as distinct from the British one, emerged in many cases from multi-sport organisations, and elite soccer teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are still active at the sharp end of locally popular sports like basketball and handball. It stands to reason, then, to wonder if they could have a role in shaping the future of a sport with a limited presence on the continent until now.  

Not one, but two franchise cricket leagues will launch in Europe this year. The first of these will build on the steady progress of the sport in Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands, with six city-based teams set to play 33 games between 30th August and 22nd September. Yet it is the second that suggests a more intriguing pattern for how fan groups are developing, and where established teams might theoretically help them flourish.

The European Cricket League is the brainchild of Australian-born German national team player and hedge fund manager Daniel Weston. Its chief executive is former Fifa broadcasting director Roger Feiner, and its board is rounded out by former Team Marketing chief executive Thomas Klooz and Frank Leenders, head of media and marketing at world basketball governing body Fiba.

The competition is founded on the premise that migration from south Asia, including people displaced by the conflict in Afghanistan, has created disparate pockets of cricketing interest right across Europe. Its initial plan is for a three-day, digitally distributed tournament at La Manga in Spain at the end of July, featuring leading club teams from Catalonia, the Netherlands, France, Romania, Germany, Russia, Denmark and Italy.  

How far the league goes from there is open to question but its originators have a bold vision for it. And it is impossible not to wonder what its potential might be with support from the grandees of European soccer.

Teams in the colours of Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, leaning on the communities, networks and resources of those institutions, in a contest streamed back to fans in the subcontinent: it may not be cricket, yet, but it could be a glimpse of where things are going.