Following New York City FC’s first ever game in Major League Soccer (MLS) earlier this year, Frank Dunne caught up with the soccer franchise’s president Tom Glick about his future plans.
It had been a good week for City Football Group (CFG).
Manchester City had beaten English Premier League champions Chelsea 3-0 at City’s Etihad Stadium. The win also marked the first use of the stadium’s newly-extended South Stand – increasing total capacity from 49,000 to 55,000 – marking the club’s record attendance.
The same day, Japan’s top-flight J-League team Yokohama F. Marinos had beaten Ventforet Kofu 2-0. Four days earlier, New York City FC had beaten MLS Eastern Conference leaders DC United 3-1. Meanwhile, Manchester City’s women’s team had defeated Sunderland 3-1 away, to continue its de-fence of the FA Women’s Super League Continental Cup.
With victories across three continents, CFG was beginning to redefine the notion of success in football and to fulfil the long-term vision of its owner, Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of creating a global footprint built on network of football clubs with a strong local identity which win with style.
The acquisition of Man City in 2008 was the foundation stone. This was followed by the creation of a joint venture with baseball’s New York Yankees in 2013 to launch NYCFC in the 2015 MLS season, the $12m purchase and rebranding of Australian A-League team Melbourne Heart in January 2014, and the acquisition of a 20-per-cent take in Yokohama in May 2014.
Multi-club ownership is not new in football and is not unique to CFG. In the 1990s, Joe Lewis’s Enic investment group pioneered the multi-ownership model with stakes in Tottenham Hotspur in England, Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, AEK Athens in Greece, Vicenza in Italy, Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic and Basel in Switzerland.
Italy’s Pozzo family owns Premier League club Watford, Granada in Spain’s LaLiga and Serie A’s Udinese. Drinks manufacturer Red Bull owns clubs in Salzburg, Leipzig, New York and São Paulo. Belgian billionaire Roland Duchâtelet owns Charlton Athletic in England, Standard Liège and Sint-Truiden in Belgium, Carl Zeiss Jena in Germany, Alcorcon in Spain and Ujpest in Hungary. Indonesian entrepre-neur Erick Thohir owns MLS’s DC United, Serie A’s Inter Milan and Persib Bandung of the Indonesian Super League.
There are also several high-profile example of industrialists with two clubs. These include Malaysian investor Vincent Tan, who owns Cardiff City in the English Championship and FK Sarajevo in Bosnia, and Canadian businessman Joey Saputo, owner of Montreal Impact in MLS and Bologna in Serie A.
The way CFG works, however, is different to all the other examples in everything from geographical scope and investment levels to day-to-day micro-management.
As one football finance expert told SportBusiness International: “For most of these owners, it’s about access to players and being able to move players around. That will increasingly be an objective now that third party ownership of players has been banned.
“CFG is unique in terms of the investment made in these clubs. Most people simply don’t have the financial capacity. Ultimately, if media-rights values continue to grow, having a greater global reach might help CFG secure a return on its investment. In the meantime, it’s spreading the Abu Dhabi mes-sage throughout the world.”
Global Network, Local Identity
Tom Glick joined CFG in 2012 as chief commercial and marketing officer for Manchester City and managing director of City Football Marketing, the division responsible for partnership sales and activation, content production and distribution, retail and licensing and fan relationship management for all four clubs. On February 1, he was named president of NYCFC.
Talking to SportBusiness International in mid-August, Glick explained why CFG feels it is doing something unique.
“The thing about CFG is that we are genuinely global,” he said.“There are clubs that share the City brand but have a local identity in each case. They are tied together as part of an international network with support companies like City Football Services and City Football Marketing – so we have a consistent sporting approach from things like scouting and player development, through to coaching and the football philosophy.
“The shared sales and marketing division is able to take great advantage of partnerships, creating best practice in fan development, content and retail licensing. It’s the consistent approach and resources behind the City brand that is setting us apart.”
The expansion has not come without growing pains. This has included the scrutiny of Uefa, European football’s governing body, which has looked into whether the multiple ownership is a way to get around its financial fair play rules.
The Frank Lampard transfer saga – where the player was bought by NYCFC from Chelsea and then loaned for a season to City – was not well received. With NYCFC already playing in the same strip with the same sponsor, Etihad, some New Yorkers feared the club might just be a satellite to serve the greater good of the Manchester mothership.
In Melbourne, there were initial, albeit small-scale, protests against the ‘Cityfication’ process. Mel-bourne Heart played in red before it was bought and given a new sky blue home strip, a new club crest and new name in Melbourne City.
Glick, however, firmly rejects the notion that local identity is being submerged in a sky blue corporate makeover.
“If you take a look, it’s certainly more local. The clubs are very well connected locally in each case. This is New York’s club, we have built it with the insight of New Yorkers. Even if our season ticket holders follow clubs all around the world, including Europe and Latin America, this is still their club.
“We also know from our fans in New York and in Melbourne that they see a real advantage to being linked to, and having the resources of, one of the biggest clubs in the world [in Man City].”
Glick pointed to the success NYCFC has had in building both a supporter base and creating valuable local commercial partnerships as evidence of this. At the time of writing, the club had sold 18,200 season tickets – the second highest number in MLS – had nearly 200,000 Twitter followers and over one million Facebook likes. Average home crowds, for a club that has only existed for a few months, stand at about 29,000.
“We have New York Presbyterian, which is a massive healthcare system across the New York metropolitan area, Modell’s, the city’s leading sporting goods retailer, and others,” he added.
“These are local New York businesses that want to be associated with the club and have no interest in being associated with Man City. There are locally and regionally-owned companies that are also using our club to drive their business in New York. These complement other companies like Etihad airways, [software firm] SAP and [car manufacturer] Nissan, who have an international or global business.”
Sharing the Heritage
Sports marketing expert Nigel Currie said that for a brand new club like NYCFC and a very young club like Melbourne, being able to take on some aspects of identity from a heavyweight Premier League club had benefits that far outweigh any possible negatives of having a shared, and therefore, diluted brand identity.
“CFG can get away with it because of the youth of the clubs. Having the association and link with Man City, it doesn’t give them an instant heritage, but it gives them a solid foundation. They are part of this group, feeding off the heritage and experience of one of the top Premier League clubs,” Currie told SportBusiness International.
“The group can use the experience of Man City to get the others up to speed as quickly as possible. They can just bypass all the years of the learning process, fast-tracking their development by taking on board the things that top Premier League clubs are doing at the moment.”
Currie added that for brands looking to sponsor football clubs, CFG represented a one-stop shop that was more attractive than having to cherry pick partners across multiple territories.
“This is a group that can provide you with similar benefits and opportunities in four very key markets. It can give a uniformity to any promotional activity, which is something brands quite like. If you go market by market, you might not end up with the same kind of agreement in each,” he said.
CFG’s global approach has helped the group sign lucrative sponsorship deals covering all four clubs, such as those with Nissan and SAP. But it is not a top-down culture. The group management works closely with the individual club managements to define commercial strategy on a case-by-case basis.
“We have executives at NYCFC, including myself, who are singularly focused on building this club,” said Glick. “But we have others in the group who bring expertise in various areas, and we have the ability to pull on and use it
— GMR Marketing UK (@GMRMarketingUK) August 10, 2015
Sheikh Mansour was able to transform Man City from a sleeping giant to league champion in three seasons by injecting over £1bn to build a squad of world-class players. Such cash-driven accelerated growth is not an option available to MLS franchise owners due to salary caps and limits on foreign players. So inevitably, the road to success will be longer.
“MLS is more centrally controlled, while clubs in the Premier League are afforded more independence, but both are good systems,” Glick said. “The league’s salary cap and the three designated player positions is built for more competitive balance. It presents a different technical challenge.
“We are investing in top players and we have some great young players, so we are working within the system to perform and to win and are confident that over time we can do that.”
Differences in ownership structure and governance will be no impediment to the continued expansion of CFG, however, with Glick admitting that CFG is likely to expand its fleet of football clubs.
“We get approached by many organisations who have an interest in seeing if we would like to be involved,” Glick said. “There are some very interesting opportunities around the world. CFG chairman [Khaldoon Al Mubarak] has spoken about our interest in doing more and when we can find the right countries, the right leagues and the right clubs, I fully expect that we will do so.”
While there are likely to be more examples of multi-club ownership, some football finance experts believe that the scale of what CFG has embarked upon is likely to remain unique.
One club adviser told SportBusiness International: “If they were not in such an exceptional funding position it would never stack up as an investment decision.
“If you were a private equity fund, you would never do it. Most clubs struggle to spend money off the pitch. Historically, clubs have struggled to spend on their infrastructure, their IT and everything else that goes into the back office, because they try to put every pound on to the pitch. Trying that in four dif-ferent continents with four different clubs is very, very adventurous.”
So far in New York, at least, that adventurous spirit is paying off.
“We had high hopes, but the growth is exceeding our expectations,” Glick said. “We’ve been very fortunate and things are going extremely well. We have media following us and businesses who want to be affiliated with us. We are doing every-thing we can to connect with the great fans in New York City and to unleash the power of soccer, which was already here. New York was clearly ready for this."
Curriculum Vitae - Tom Glick
Glick has worked in the sports industry for over 25 years. He spent much of the first 14 years of his career working in baseball. From 1999 to 2004, he served as senior vice-president of sales and marketing at the Sacramento River Cats, which led Minor League Baseball (MiLB)’s attendance figures during his five seasons there. The team also became the MiLB’s top seller of merchandise over that same period.
Glick held various senior positions with other MiLB teams, including the Lansing Lugnuts, Huntington Cubs, Welland Pirates and Jamestown Expos. He was also the business manager of the Peoria Rivermen Hockey Club.
In 2004, he joined the National Basketball Association, first as vice-president of marketing and team business development at the league headquarters in New York City, and later as chief marketing officer for the New Jersey Nets. This involved working on the club’s relocation to its current home in Brooklyn.
In 2008, he was appointed chief executive of English Football League club Derby County, becoming the first American elected to serve on the board of the Football League. In 2012, he left to join City Football Group, before becoming president of New York City FC earlier this year.