Former Man City chief Cook takes winning recipe to new frontiers

Frank Dalleres
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Expansion of martial arts sport UFC next on the agenda, he tells Frank Dalleres

HOLLYWOOD comparisons abounded last May when, with the last kick of the season, Manchester City plucked the Premier League from the grasp of their fiercest rivals, crowning the club’s sudden and dizzying ascent.

One of the main protagonists in that unfeasible plot was Garry Cook, the chief executive who helped hire title-winning manager Roberto Mancini and spearheaded their Abu Dhabi-funded quest for world football domination.

Cook was a notable absentee from that happiest of endings, having resigned just months earlier following allegations that he mistakenly sent an insensitive email to the cancer-stricken mother of a City player.

But, like cinema’s most compelling creations, Cook has returned for another outing, this time to spread the gospel of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the leading global mixed martial arts (MMA) brand.

One of his first achievements as managing director for EMEA has been to land a three-year deal with BT Sport, announced this month, that will see the pay-TV newcomer become the new home of UFC in Britain from this summer.

It is part of an ambitious growth plan that also includes introducing UFC-themed fitness programmes in UK gyms, more events being staged on these shores and a new video game tie-up with EA Sports.

Ensuring broadcast slots are closer to prime time, rather than their current “restrictive” post-midnight shows on ESPN, will raise the profile of UFC to the more mainstream status it enjoys in North and South America, Cook believes.

The former head of Nike’s Jordan brand adds that “challenging” and “educating” viewers about the subtleties of UFC strategy will foster an appreciation he says exists among athletes in other sports.

“At Manchester City the trainers and physios used to use MMA as a way of building core body strength,” he explains. “The England rugby team and their trainers use a lot of the technique for scrum capability. That’s built a general understanding of the sport at athlete level, it’s how you get consumers or fans to understand this sport is not just the perception of it – which is often the wrong perception – it’s actually something elite athletes use to train.”

The failure of ESPN and predecessor Setanta to topple Sky’s dominance of subscription sports broadcasting has raised questions about BT Sport’s longevity, but Cook believes they and UFC can help each other thrive.

“They are big, bold and aggressive, and we see ourselves as the same,” he says. “The ultimate goal is creating for them a unique point of difference with regards to content, which is what we are: we’re a new sport, we’re the fastest-growing, so they’ve seized on the opportunity to take loads of great content.”

Cook compares the scale of the UFC project with that when he first arrived at Manchester City in 2008 under then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra, who swiftly sold to Arab multi-billionaire Sheikh Mansour.

Tasked with channelling his employer’s vast wealth into transforming City from laughing stock to European titans, Cook set about recruiting superstars for British record sums and overhauling the club from top to bottom.

His tendency to pepper comments with corporate speak did not always endear himself to Blues fans and his departure was under something of a cloud, but the team’s success during his tenure and since is indisputable.

Cook saw the fruits of his work in May 2011 when Mancini, whom he hired to replace Mark Hughes, led City to the FA Cup – their first major trophy for 35 years – and still warmly refers to the club as “we”.

Despite being absent, he felt “immense satisfaction” when £38m striker Sergio Aguero’s injury-time goal pipped neighbours Manchester United to the top-flight title the following season, ending a 44-year drought.

“All of the hard work we had to put in was absolutely worth it,” he says. “To see that many grown men and women crying, at Wembley and then after the Aguero goal, just fills you with joy, because you cannot imagine how passionate and committed those fans are.”

This week, exactly 12 months after that day of days, Mancini was controversially sacked, having ended second to United in the league, lost the FA Cup final and failed again in the Champions League – “our nemesis”, as Cook calls it.

“We’ve come a long way extremely quickly. But the bar is always going to be set very high because the owners are extremely ambitious. So success is relative, depending on the ambition,” he says.

“I know Roberto extremely well – nobody will be more disappointed about this season than him. At the same time, he knows as everybody does what the rules are.”

He describes chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak as “an extremely fair man”, adding: “If there is discord in the football club it’s unsettling for everybody, and at the end of the day the club is bigger than any one person.”

The remark echoes some accusations levelled against Mancini that the Italian is prone to conflict.

“Yes. But you have to put it into context,” he says. “It’s passion and it’s commitment, and professional athletes are a step above everybody else by virtue of their commitment to being successful.

“Passive and successful are not often used in the same sentence. And so I, like everybody else, used to have heated discussions with Roberto about various subjects but I knew he wanted the best for Manchester City and he wanted to win. And I think that’s acceptable.”

Tipped to succeed Mancini is Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini, thought to be favoured by Cook’s replacement Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain, both architects of Barcelona’s golden era.

Any future City manager must fit into a continental-style structure, says Cook, appearing to rule out any prospect of the famously autocratic Jose Mourinho ever taking charge at the Etihad Stadium.

“It’s a model we put in place that was resisted by many, it continues today and is the right way forward for the club. They’ll want someone who plays within that structure, not someone who wants complete control.”

Cook remains in touch with City’s Abu Dhabi owners, who own 14 per cent of UFC through another of their investment arms, January Capital; indeed he credits them for helping him land his current position.

His fingerprints are also on City’s tour to America later this month, and planned purchase of a Major League Soccer franchise, having put in place a football marketing team for the Miami Dolphins NFL side that has worked on both of those US-based projects.

He received “quite a few” job offers “from all over” after leaving City, as well as 10 clubs requesting help finding financing, and has left the door open for a return to football – just not yet.

“I’ve done the football thing,” he says. “That was great, and maybe one day I will come back to it, but right now I see nothing but growth and opportunity for UFC.”