Last week the Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City became the first Premier League club to announce an official shirt sleeve sponsor, unveiling a deal with a Korean company at an event attended by their Spanish manager Pep Guardiola and German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.
The multi-year agreement with existing partner Nexen Tire — the first of its kind for a top-flight side in England — fits with a club that is notably globalist in its outlook, even in an age when pre-season fixtures in Asia and America have become commonplace.
City have beaten their domestic rivals to take advantage of the Premier League’s decision to allow clubs to sell advertising space on the right arm of their shirts – a consequence of the competition’s move to dispense with a title sponsor.
With the opportunity to have a logo featured in every social media clip, photo and broadcast of a Kevin De Bruyne fist-bump or a Vincent Kompany command, there was no shortage of interest, according to Tom Glick, chief commercial officer of the club’s parent company City Football Group (CFG).
“It was quite popular and there was a lot of interest in it,” Glick told City A.M.
“I think that validates the whole [shirt sleeve] proposition and the position of the Premier League and its clubs to say ‘we should do this’.
“The reach around the world and total TV audience of the Premier League is so far beyond any other league and furthermore something like this is inherently baked into the social media that we do every day around the world.
“From a visibility and media value perspective, it’s incredibly powerful and generates tremendous value for a company like Nexen. But that’s just a backbone upon which we’re building marketing and business development and employee engagement and retail engagement programmes.”
City have not yet evolved into the imperious force widely anticipated since Guardiola’s arrival — the club were dumped out of the Champions League by Monaco last week and are far from guaranteeing a spot in next season’s competition.
Yet the unique selling point that City have over their rivals at the top of the Premier League when going to market is that partners like Nexen can take advantage of CFG’s continent-spanning stable of football clubs.
Glick has been at the forefront of building a CFG empire that now includes Major League Soccer franchise New York City FC, Australia’s Melbourne City FC and Yokohama F Marinos in Japan.
That might sound like a lot to manage, but CFG are taking a keen interest in emerging markets with an eye towards a future acquisition.
China is of particular interest. CFG already have already forged links in the country after selling a 13 per cent stake in the company to state-backed China Media Capital Holdings and have received a visit from Premier Xi Jinping to their training ground.
“Our chairman [Khaldoon Al Mubarak] has spoken publicly about our openness to new clubs and there are certainly some exciting, growing football markets around the world,” says Glick.
“Markets like China, India. We’re quite active in China right now. It’s an incredibly exciting place for football. When I’m on the ground there, which is a few days every month, I’m seeing first hand the big focus that the central government has put on it.
“So we’re very focused on it. We want to add value and help in any way that we can with the mission that China is on and that could perhaps involve a club at some point.”
On the pitch, “network” models of multiple club ownership including Red Bull’s branded teams in Austria, Germany and to the collection of clubs — including Watford — owned by the Italian Pozzo family, have accrued mixed results.
Despite the capture of big-profile and big-money players such as David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard at New York and Tim Cahill at Melbourne, CFG’s newer properties have not yet enjoyed the equivalent level of success to their big brother in Manchester.
In commercial terms, however, Glick says having an on-the-ground presence in burgeoning football markets has been a game-changer for CFG.
“We’re convinced our model has a bright future and will continue to help us grow faster,” said the American, who worked in the NBA before moving into football as chief executive at Derby County in 2008.
“We’re seeing that blue-chip brands and companies — and their investors and shareholders — are wanting to invest in it. It’s a challenging model to replicate but if others do we would welcome the competition.”
With estimates of the number of football fans in China reaching 500m, a new CFG team in Beijing or Shanghai would leave that competition with lots of catching up