Since being taken over by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Abu Dhabi Group in the summer of 2008, Manchester City is fast becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Its subsequent spending spree has so far seen around £150m of talent arrive at the City of Manchester stadium, including Robinho, Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Sage pundits have been rather piously pointing out that it will take more than a few big name signings to establish City as regulars in the Premiership’s top four and the Champions League – and that it remains 33 years since the club won a trophy.
But, only a fool would deny the inevitability that it will happen. The sheer weight of resources being put behind the team will eventually be enough to buckle the established order (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea). It might not happen this year, but it will happen.
A tougher challenge, however, will be breaking up the Big Four’s dominance as global licensing heavyweights. Just as it takes a while to achieve significant success, it then takes a while to turn that success into a lucrative business.
The club has taken a step towards that goal with the appointment of specialist licensing agency Fluid as a commercial partner. The firm already works with Arsenal and has an unrivalled network of contacts.
Director Tom Howgate is aware of the challenge, and of Man City’s proud heritage as a Manchester football club rather than a global brand.
He also sees the parallels between the club’s challenges and expectations on the pitch and in the licensing arena: “Look, of course it’s going to help if the club secures some significant success in the short term, but the club is pragmatic about this and is working towards a medium to long-term plan. From a licensing perspective, I’m equally patient and realistic. The domestic business is not going to increase ten-fold in the space of a year. Licensees are not stupid and are not going to sign up to silly deals just because the club has signed some big players.
“Licensees need to see the translation of great players into great results and great results into great sales, and that will take time.”
But, whilst realism and patience are watchwords, Howgate points out that even before the influx of money and stars, the club’s financial base wasn’t quite as parochially rooted as you might think. “One of the first things we did was review the club’s geographical sales data and we were really encouraged by the amount of customers who are spread across the country.
“That means there really is an opportunity to develop the licensing business with genuine mass market opportunities available to the licensees we recruit. Inevitably there will be a focus on the North West at first, but that will change over time.
“It doesn’t help when the club has been starved of trophies for over 30 years, but the fanbase is arguably one of the most passionate and loyal in the Premier League. And going forward the club is anticipating significant growth for a number of reasons.
“One: It’s improving its retail offering, both in terms of bricks and mortar and through its new website.
“Two: It’s improving the product assortment by increasing the breadth of the product range, principally as a result of the addition of a wide range of new licensing partners.
“Three: It’s making its product available to a wider distribution base through the growth of its licensee portfolio
“Four: The club will be reaching a whole new legion of fans both domestically and overseas as a result of its new higher profile, the players it has recruited and the success everyone is hoping will be achieved on the pitch.
“Fluid’s job is simply to gear up the licensing business to ensure we have the licensees in place to satisfy the anticipated increase in demand.
“The new ownership at the club is incredibly ambitious and really want to make an impression on the world of sport and sports business. They have some amazing ideas about how to grow the City brand globally, yet remain incredibly loyal to the club’s original fans, beliefs and philosophies.”
One of the most important and longest-standing relationships the club has is with Home Win, focusing on gifts/souvenirs, but they have been joined by 15 new licensees signed by Fluid in the last three months. These include Aykroyds (nightwear), Brecrest (babywear), Football Mania (stationery) and Sports Merchandise Group (watches).
One of the big gaps still left to fill is the apparel slot. Umbro has stepped up to provide this year’s very stylish and quite retro kit, but Fluid is still searching for the right licensee to produce the fashion/leisurewear range.
Howgate believes, however that “it’s the club’s international partners who may well play the most significant role in the club’s future. We’ve already started pushing the brand into some international markets, with deals in both Europe and the Middle East.”
So, the licensing team is in Europe before the boys in blue? Not bad going – and a sign that on and off the pitch, there are no City limits anymore.