Sky-blue thinking | Ferran Soriano interview

Ferran Soriano is CEO of Manchester City FC and City Football Group, and winner of The SportBusiness Award at the 2017 Globe Soccer Awards. We caught up with him to talk about his approach to running a football club, his thoughts on football in the Middle East, and more.

What business accomplishment in the past year are you most proud of?

This has been an eventful year for us at the City Football Group and we have many reasons to be proud, but if I were to pick one business-related accomplishment, I would mention the development and opening of the Tunnel Club at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. We believe it offers the best game experience possible for a football fan.

What are the biggest challenges facing Manchester City’s business in 2018?

Our biggest challenge is on the pitch. The club continues to grow fast and our business is profitable. Our focus and our challenge is to play beautiful football and win trophies.

What will be the most significant trends in the football business in 2018?

I think we will continue to see innovations in media content and fan engagement initiatives, and the big clubs will continue to grow globally.

When you look around the football business, which executives and leaders stand out for you as doing the best job?

I have a particular admiration and respect for the leaders of teams that have lower budgets in the leagues and spend and manage smartly to get results on the pitch. In our own group (City Football Group), we have seen incredible achievements by clubs like Girona or Torque getting promotion to the top divisions of their countries.

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When business and football meet, there are inevitable tensions. There are social and cultural aspects of football that do not sit well with a hard-nosed approach to maximising revenue and profit. What must football executives keep in mind when navigating these?

Football is our product, the engine of everything we do, and should take prioritised attention. No business strategy or marketing trick will work if we do not play good football. Equally, the fans and their communities are central to what clubs are and the reason why they exist. No business strategy will work against the fans. Football, fans and business work together – not only are they compatible, but they are mutually interconnected and necessary. Increased revenues will feed better football and better experiences for the fans.

You have been reported to see football clubs as global entertainment brands. How does this differ from the traditional view of a football club, and what does it mean for how it should be run?

We provide entertainment in the broadest sense. We produce a show, generate a kind of art, create emotions and foster a sense of belonging and community. Football is unique but it still competes with other forms of entertainment. We aim to play beautiful football and also unleash creativity in our players. Our ‘audience’ – which is our fans – is at the very heart of everything we do and, like us, they want to win, but they also want to be entertained.

In your times at both Barcelona and Manchester City, you have presided over periods of improved financial performance. What changes did you make to achieve this? What are the key elements of the Soriano ‘blueprint’?

The blueprint is the one of common sense. Focus on generating revenue by understanding your fans and seize all opportunities. Manage costs as you would manage costs in any other industry or your home economy. Football is not different, common sense applies.

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The financial and on-pitch performance gulf between the world’s biggest clubs such as Manchester City FC and the rest is widening. Where do you see this ultimately leading?

I do not see this gap widening. Leagues become more and more competitive and clubs are managed more and more professionally, so I think these gaps will ultimately become narrower.

What would you say have been the most critical parts of your education and experience that have led you to become a leading sports executive?

I got into football by chance, with a blend of strategy and marketing experience. Strategy helped me learn how to conceptualise and simplify complex problems. In marketing, I learned that consumers are in the absolute centre of any business and we need to understand them and continuously improve the value we provide to them.

What’s best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Never, ever give up. Just by working hard you will be better than 50 per cent of your competitors. You should try, learn from your mistakes, and try again.

The Globe Soccer Awards takes place in Dubai. Dubai, the UAE and the Middle East in general is playing an increasingly important role in football, via investments, the World Cup, and other projects. What significance do you think the region has for football, and how do you expect to see that developing in the coming years?

As in many other industries and cultural aspects, this region is a land of opportunities, vision and inspiration. I’m lucky enough to witness and benefit from these opportunities and qualities every day, as part of an organisation led by HH Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed and HE Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Everywhere I look, I see smart people working hard and collegiately in a multicultural environment, and this is something that pervades this region. I am sure football will continue to develop very fast here. 

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