x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

How star players can build a global brand

Manchester City's chairman is well aware that in many markets, including the Middle East, loyalty to players often trumps loyalty to teams.

Thai fans of Manchester City club wave the team members on their arrival at the Bangkok airport in November 2007.
Thai fans of Manchester City club wave the team members on their arrival at the Bangkok airport in November 2007.

Abu Dhabi // As Real Madrid demonstrated when they paid £80 million (Dh480m) for Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's most recognisable player, football clubs are motivated by a need to market themselves to a global fan base.

It is a business philosophy of which Khaldoon al Mubarak is well aware: success comes not just on the field, but in a club's reach to Asia and Africa. The passion for football runs deep on those continents but, crucially, loyalties can be decided by the visit of a club or the signing of a glamorous player. Closer to home, Mr al Mubarak is convinced that within a couple of seasons, Manchester City can become the club of choice for fans of English football in the Middle East.

"You have to look at Asia and Africa. These are markets which are growing and where there is a tremendous football base," he said. "These are markets where if you position yourself well enough, you have an opportunity to really capture. "In Europe there is a traditional football market. But you go to Asia and Africa and you have a good opportunity to build on your base and [their] huge populations.

"They don't have leagues of the quality of the English Premier League and that is an advantage if you come in with a club built on the right foundation, with the right players and the right appeal. And Mr al Mubarak plans to start with his home region. Within two years, he hopes to turn City into "almost a cult" in the Middle East. "I am very confident that over the next two seasons we will be very big in the Middle East.

"First of all the English league is already very popular. Our association with the club is very well known and that will grow as we develop the club. "I think Middle East supporters like to associate with us and knowing this is a club owned by Sheikh Mansour and you see Etihad on our shirt and the new website we are developing. "As you start seeing us winning, you will see a very fast growth." Initially the club will target younger fans, who may not yet have made a commitment to any club, with regional friendly matches and a series of training camps.

For some fans, loyalty lies first with a player, then with the club he plays for - a factor that was a large part of the calculation when Real bought Ronaldo from Manchester United. If City are to compete seriously for worldwide loyalties, they will need to attract players with the flair and image of Ronaldo and Kaká, another Brazilian, for whom Real paid AC Milan £56 million just days before the Ronaldo deal.

City's £32.5 milion purchase of the Brazilian forward Robinho from Real last year was a clear statement of that intention. "I think that, no question, signature signings has a huge appeal here," Mr al Mubarak said. "Football is so popular in this region. One attraction is clubs and the other is players. You have to build the brand as a club, and attract these players that fit your needs as a club but also give you that tremendous fan base. That's a win-win for everyone.

"Everybody has an opinion, but there are particular positions that if you are looking for an A-class player, your options are not that big. "That's what makes us see those huge [transfer] numbers. If you are looking for impact player, the reality of the situation is quite thin. How will United fill the void of Ronaldo?" And nothing breeds support for a football team like its participation in major tournaments that are broadcast around the world.

Only one thing can guarantee this - playing in the Uefa Champions League. For English clubs, that means placing in the top four of the Premier League. "Sheikh Mansour is someone that you would definitely classify as competitive," Mr al Mubarak said. "We are not in this to complete the group around the [mid] table. "We are here to win and build a club that is going to compete and will be in a position to win trophies. There is no question of that in my book.

"Now, whether we achieve that in a year, two, three, four, five ... "I know what we want to do and I'm very clear on our internal targets. We want to win trophies, and what we have done in the last year and what we have done this summer will set the tone very clearly." stregoning@thenational.ae rditcham@thenational.ae