In the future: multi-club ownership will become universal
In the future, Manchester City’s multiple club ownership model will be more and more prevalent as chief executives and chairman struggle to compete in an increasingly global market for players, sponsors and fans. Owners will recognise the advantages of keeping a foothold in several emerging football markets, sharing best practices and strengthening scouting networks among their member clubs in addition to widening their front office talent pool. Multi-club ownership will also present a challenge to football regulators who will need to ensure it does not affect the integrity of domestic league competitions, with talent drained from one club to support another.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber (L) shakes hands with Manchester City Football Club CEO Ferran Soriano at a news conference to announce the partnership between Manchester City Football Club and the New York Yankees to form a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion club, New York City FC, in New York, May 22, 2013.
Multi-team ownership is nothing new. High profile American Premier League club owners Stan Kroenke and John Henry for example own several teams across various professional leagues including Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, MLS and the NHL, using shared expertise and best practices to strengthen their individual assets.
City Football Group however—the holding company under the aegis of Abu Dhabi United Group-owned Manchester City—is the first of its kind in the Premier League, and is owner/investor in football clubs in Major League Soccer (New York City FC), the A-League (Melbourne Heart) and more recently the J-League (Yokohama F Marinos).
CFG’s CEO Ferran Soriano gave a hint of his company’s long term strategy in a press release after acquiring Yokohama: “We are proud to offer a collaborative and integrated approach to the football, marketing, media and commercial development of all the clubs in the City family.” Soriano also mentioned how Yokohama would gain “…unrivalled access to CFG’s training methods, medical care, sport science, team management and coaching know-how.”
This benefits however flow in both directions. With clubs based in four different continents, CFG has a global platform on which to grow their parent club’s brand worldwide with pre-season tours and commercial partnerships in vital overseas markets in Asia, North America and Australia.
Yet there are other, more subtle benefits in having personnel based in overseas leagues. One involves wider exposure to what author and probability scholar Nassim Taleb calls “serendipitous encounters.” Taleb explains this idea in his 2007 book Black Swan:
Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees. Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.
Much in the same way, City’s multi-club ownership model increases its exposure to other clubs, new football ideas, leads on star players, better front office best practices, encounters with agents, representatives, coaches managers etc.—ie more “lucky breaks.”
Compare this to most club front offices, most of which work in isolation and increasingly rely on high-flying technical directors to stay in contact with an ever-changing list of agents and representatives. These clubs also rely on a small team of scouts who, despite their best efforts, can hardly be expected to have eyes and ears in every market. Multi-club ownership helps overcome these limitations.
City are not the only team to consider the benefits of this approach. Brentford owner Matthew Benham has recently purchased a majority shareholding in Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland, appointing 21st Club co-founder Rasmus Ankersen as chairman with the hopes of using “any expertise they have to help [Brentford] achieve [their] goals,” according to Brentford chairman Cliff Brown.
Despite the positives however, there will be challenges to ensure that this kind of model doesn’t threaten the integrity of domestic competitions, particularly if clubs are drained of talent either on the pitch or in the boardroom in service of another asset. That will be something for football regulators and labour law experts to debate and decide over time.
Moreover, the onus is on multi-club owners to reassure fans their club will not be exploited for another’s gain or that their local club is more than a chain outlet in a multinational corporation. City’s already good fan relations at their parent club will serve them well in reaching out to their new overseas fan base.
Nevertheless, the advantages of multi-club ownership will speak for themselves on the pitch over a few seasons. After all, many technical directors speak of the importance in elite footballers going overseas to gain more experience, learn new and different approaches to football and improve their game—who’s to say the same doesn’t apply to club front offices?