With the City Football Group (CFG) in talks to take over French side Nancy, its franchise portfolio is likely to be extended to nine clubs in the coming months.
In the space of little over a decade, CFG has become the biggest multi-club ownership business in world football with sides in England, the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, Spain and Uruguay already.
It’s a fast rise from the first purchase in 2008, when Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City - a traditional English club where success on and off the pitch was scarce.
The Premier League champions now form the central part of a huge global organisation, valued at $4.8bn (£3.73bn) when American private equity firm Silver Lake bought a 10 per cent stake in CFG in November 2019. China Media Capital also bought a stake in the group in 2018.
City remain the biggest asset in the group with the Premier League still the richest and most high-profile league in the world as well as the most valuable. But its acquisition policy has put them at the forefront as the game continues to grow and develop in emerging and large markets.
There are other models of multi-club ownership such as drinks giant Red Bull, which has clubs in Leipzig, Salzburg, Brazil and New York but none are as widespread or as high profile as CFG.
The idea was partly the brainchild of CEO Ferran Soriano, who first talked about building a franchise of clubs around the world long before he arrived in east Manchester. Soriano held a similar position at Barcelona when he first floated the idea of a “Disneyfication” of football clubs.
His vision was to make the whole experience more about entertainment than just football and to take the brand global. Disney enthusiasts have a level of expectation whenever they experience a movie, store or theme park associated with the company. Soriano wanted to do something similar in football although that idea has been refined over time as reflected in the clubs that CFG have bought.
Professor Simon Chadwick, from the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry, a leading institution in research and the impact of sport, has been watching CFG’s growth with interest ever since he was at the University of London's Birkbeck College 12 years ago when Soriano spelled out his vision in a lecture to his students.
“What is now becoming clearer about the CFG strategy is that it is intended to simultaneously deliver a multiplicity of goals,” Prof Chadwick told Goal .
“In the likes of China and India, the intention is to build fan engagement and secure the benefits of a growing middle-class and their desire for entertainment products. In Spain and Uruguay, talent identification, acquisition and development would appear to be the goals.”
CFG has bought strategically in big cities where there is huge potential for growth such as New York, Mumbai, Melbourne and, 12 months ago, Chengdu, which is one of the fastest growing cities in China and attracting young, educated workers. Uruguayan club Atletico Tourque, meanwhile, gives CFG a stronghold in the South American market, where competition has meant acquiring potential stars needs to be done at the earliest opportunity. Girona, in Spain, has been a useful place to give experience to potential stars of the future.
“The franchise model is obviously one that has been used before, for example, ENIC, [who bought stakes in Tottenham, Rangers, FC Basel, Vicenza and Slavia Prague) and is now being employed by rivals, such as Red Bull,” Prof Chadwick added.
“However, it is what CFG symbolises that is most striking: the intersection of football, entertainment, digital and, perhaps crucially, politics. There is no doubt that Abu Dhabi’s wealth, allied to its political and diplomatic aspirations, has put CFG in a unique position. Whilst this position is not unassailable, for the time being at least, it is dominant.”
City have already introduced many ideas that take the experience away from the mere 90-minute football match, whether it’s The Tunnel Club at the Etihad Stadium - where fans can get a behind-the-scenes view of the players emerging from the dressing room to doing post-match interviews - or the revealing documentary series for Amazon Prime.
But their growth has not come without criticism. Some accuse the owners of trying to “sportswash” their country’s image. In its 2019-20 report, Amnesty accused the United Arab Emirates of arbitrary arrests, torture, restricted freedom of expression and discrimination against women. However, Prof Chadwick doesn’t believe it is the reason for their ownership.
“Personally, I don’t think 'sportswashing' has been a primary motivation for Abu Dhabi or CFG, although the incidental reputational and image benefits are obviously an advantage for the business’ owners,” he said.
“Instead, acquiring Manchester City and then using it as the basis for building a bigger business that forms part of an extended network has been the main intent.
“For instance, many people noticed when CFG invested into Sichuan Jiuniu in Chengdu, China. However, fewer people noticed that the day before Etihad made a strategic commitment to fly into Chengdu’s airport. It is this kind of commercial and political nexus that has been the hallmark of CFG’s activities thus far.”
For the meantime, Europe and the Premier League remain the biggest markets and City’s two-year ban from the Champions League will cause problems. It could cost the club as much as £100m a year in lost revenue from prize money and gate receipts, although they remain positive that the decision will be overturned when an appeal is heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But it won’t have too much impact on CFG and its continuing growth, according to Prof Chadwick.
“It is simply localised turbulence in the operating environment of a business unit within a global multi-product business,” he said.
“An alternative view is that CFG is seeking to challenge existing governance structures in football and is confident of doing this, given the diversified and global nature of its activities.”
Just how big and where the game will grow most will become clearer in the next decade but CFG is already well-established in what look like potentially key markets. It’s a long way from the club it bought in 2008 that were simply hoping to win their first trophy in more than 30 years.