It was labelled a historic and unprecedented deal involving Manchester City’s holding company City Football Group, one that took place off the field as seismic events increasingly do in the social media age. CFG signed a 10-year jersey deal with Puma worth over $85 million per season, the second most lucrative jersey sponsorship in the Premier League after Manchester United. But what was not covered in sheer amount is made up for by scope. Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano described the agreement as “a truly historic day for us, what we are dong has not been done before. This is an unprecedented partnership that resets the model on a truly global scale.”
“This is who we are now, this is the product we can offer,” added Soriano. “Having just one partner saves times in discussion and it allows us to do things globally.” The particulars of the deal reveal the layers of CFG while also giving a glimpse into the future of how top European sides view and may operate within the global connected world. The deal covers several clubs within their portfolio including City, Melbourne City, Girona, Club Atletico Torque, and Sichuan Jiuniu, while NYCFC and Yokohama F. Marinos will not participate in the agreement. From that perspective, the group of clubs resemble cable companies bundling several channels together to create an entity of larger perceived value. Brands will no longer negotiate with individual clubs, but with a parent company in charge of several smaller operations.
Puma chief executive Bjorn Gulden echoed Soriano’s sentiment of global ambition and overall reach. “Puma’s partnership with City is the largest deal we’ve ever done - both in scope and in ambition...we want to maximize on-field performance as well as football culture, in areas such as music, gaming, and fashion.” The chase to integrate a brand or club into culture is elusive. City’s 4-3-3 formation, debates over whether Sergio Aguero is the greatest striker in Premier League history, and City’s current 1-point lead at the top of the table are the table stakes in the wider discussion of mindshare.
Sports sponsorship expert Nigel Currie observed that the deal was a reflection of the increasingly globalized age of football, saying “Merchandising is vital. It’s not pure sponsorship, it’s a commercial deal. It will be about...creating a range of merchandise for the fashion world.” City’s play on the field is just the introduction. Everyone involved would celebrate City winning the Champions League this season, of course. But it may not even matter in the overall development of brand, especially to future groups of crossover supporters brought to the club through other means.
Yet the deal with Puma wasn’t the only move CFG made with a global view in the past month. Out of all the clubs they could have purchased in the Chinese Super League, they instead acquired a third division club in Sichuan Jiuniu. In keeping with the theme of pushing modernity, this deal saw them partner with an artificial intelligence and robotics company. This was one for the future, with Soriano representing the deal as a “long-term, sustainable commitment to grow and develop...and to nurture Chinese footballing talent.” There is a reach for attention through social media videos, but one could also go straight to the source by operating a local football team to reach supporters directly.
It was the same language Soriano used after acquiring Club Atletico Torque in 2017 (they also acquired 44.3% of Girona the same year). He stressed the interconnectivity of resources between teams on the continents in saying that the club can now fulfill its potential both on-field and commercially. Out of all the superstars in the CFG fold, it wasn’t David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne but 31-year-old Uruguayan midfielder Bruno Fornaroli who most embodies their vision. Soriano specifically pointed out his journey from Uruguay to Melbourne City FC for how a player can move across continents in their the larger connected system.
Ambitious jersey deals are just one example of how the internet is reshaping the footballing world. Likewise, the deal also gives Puma the opportunity to tap into the CFG network as a player would - to seamlessly build a brand in England as well as Uruguay or China just as easily using a built in reach. There will surely be the basics of City players participating in Instagram videos, YouTube ads, music videos, and whatever new platform there will be in the future. Puma will be in charge of the battle for attention. CFG is battling for reach.
“I think the fans globally like to see interesting and attacking football, and City and Pep have that image. Pep as a personality is a positive thing. I think that you look at the players - it’s going to be a brand leader,” added Gulden.
That one could write a piece about Manchester City’s place within CFG without even mentioning Pep Guardiola shows the separation and gap between on-field tactics and an overarching business vision (we can substitute Soriano for Guardiola in these off-pitch dealings, both bred during the Barcelona Golden Age a decade ago). But the parent club has stumbled recently. City’s backroom dealings regarding youth signings has left a small opening for UEFA and the FA to interject themselves into the larger CFG vision.
With City already under investigation for how they signed Jadon Sancho from Watford by the FA, UEFA and the Premier League recently opened their own investigation for violations of FFP after leaked documents showed that only a small portion of their sponsorship deal with Etihad Airlines was being paid for by the company itself. The charges threaten to stain those involved, or at least give City and Guardiola critics more reason to doubt the club’s legacy. Guardiola is already on the defensive, saying that City’s titles “belongs to us and nobody is going to change that.”
Considering the expanse of their vision, the battles waged against the club by UEFA and the FA appear miniscule. In their press conference announcing the Sichuan Jiuniu acquisition, Soriano said they’ve been looking to buy a team in India for 2 years now, with an eye towards adding up to 3 more teams. Their moves into Uruguay, China, India, America, Australia, Japan and potentially India as opposed to further into Europe signals where the group sees the next century of football. Soriano specifically ruled out other teams in Europe, saying they’re “looking long-term where football will grow”. With that in mind, a larger European Super League not only seems like an inevitability, but only the beginning. City will debut their new Puma jersey in a friendly against Yokohama in July. The future dialogue of the game will take place in between continents. Clubs will no longer be confined within a league, but the world.