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How Manchester City transformed its fanbase

The transition from the working class to globalisation was not painless

How Manchester City transformed its fanbase The transition from the working class to globalisation was not painless

Over the past two decades, the world of football has played witness to the rapid development of clubs that would typically have been considered outside of the traditional elite. Chelsea, for many, is the obvious early example of a club that, despite having a substantial fanbase and an underplayed yet relatively quiet history, was not part of football's Bullingdon Club. Chelsea’s insistence on big spending and brand management not only created a modern footballing legacy, their development and success coupled with a diverse squad and incrementally increasing marketing budgets produced a widespread global fanbase. This is not to say Chelsea lacked a global fan base prior, however, few would argue against the fact that their success and spending were, in part, to grow the fanbase. 

A larger fanbase, the better able a club is to remain in the ‘elite’ category. Other notable clubs in recent years, such as PSG and Manchester City, followed a similar model concerning domestic dominance alongside global-scale marketing campaigns. Additionally, both clubs have benefitted from the growth of Women’s football and have played significant roles in the development of the game. However, both clubs have also struggled with the integration process of developing global fanbases. This is not unique. One needs only to spend a few minutes on Football Twitter to notice the polarisation between ‘legacy fans’ and ‘fans of the future’. Given the disputes regarding ticket prices and availability throughout the Champions League, as well as reports claiming Manchester City fans were treated like ‘cattle’, the growing differences between the fanbase as well as their relationship with UEFA are apparent. 

Manchester City’s history begins in 1880 with Rev. Arthur Connell and William Beastow establishing St. Mark's (West Gorton), the earliest incarnation of Manchester City, a name that would later be adopted by the club in 1894. The tumult of Manchester City’s twentieth century has been well documented, with the club notoriously, and unintentionally, always seemingly doing things the hard way. Nonetheless, the club has always garnered a large following, a fact often overlooked throughout its modern evolution by critics. Yet, following their modern redevelopment, City has flowered into an electric footballing powerhouse domestically and internationally - we will leave alone the litany of financial allegations currently knocking at City’s door for now. 

Manchester City journalist Alex Brotherton comments: ‘As with any team, the greater the success the larger the fanbase gets. The fan base gradually moves from a localised experience to a globalised one. Manchester City is still at the stage where they don’t have quite the global reach of Manchester United or Liverpool, despite the rapidly growing social media numbers. That said, much like the teams mentioned above, City has a really strong core of Manchester-based fans, they go all the time. This perhaps explains why for some of the lesser games the stadium is not always full, because those core fans are unable to afford increasingly higher ticket prices across a 60-game season.’

Moreover, Manchester City's global appeal has been further enhanced by its investment in community outreach programs and international partnerships. The club has established academies and grassroots initiatives worldwide, allowing them to engage with fans on a global scale. This approach has helped the club build a strong presence in regions like Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas, expanding its fanbase far beyond its traditional base in Manchester. The success of these campaigns is undeniable. Speaking to a British media outlet last year, Chief Marketing Officer of the City Football Group, Nuria Tarre, explained that:  'At Manchester City we know that one per cent of our audience is in the UK… Those who dream about going to the Etihad one day may have the opportunity to engage with the club in a way that makes them feel closer to the experience, makes them feel immersed as to what it feels to be in a stadium full of fans…. We are experimenting… fans in the US and China are interested in the day-to-day of fans going to Manchester to the games.’

A fan himself, Alex Brotherton went on to highlight that: ‘Internationally, the club are looking towards that fanbase for greater marketable opportunities to generate income. There is a risk that local fans will get rejected due to the consistent price increase. We saw this with the Real Madrid fixture in the Champions League, lots of local fans missed out. Similar happened in the Final. At points, it feels as though the club are opting to prioritise the international fans, which isn’t specific to City, most elite-level clubs do so at points. Now the club has international fan groups in a vast number of countries and undertakes outreach initiatives such as touring the team across the world to engage with these committed global supporters.’

Evidently, the club and its supporters, particularly local supporters, are aware of the future-facing plan for continually growing the fanbase: continually invest in the squad and marketing campaigns coupled with community outreach programs on a global scale to engage with as many potential fans as possible. The globalisation of football is not inherently a bad thing, people all over the world are entitled to support whoever they want for whatever reasons they choose. The diversity of the sport is arguably its greatest asset. Nonetheless, as is the case with Manchester City, success on the pitch has drawn a global audience just as willing to support the team through purchasing merchandise and tickets when possible. A necessary component for long-term elite success perhaps comes at the cost of losing those closest. Something for Manchester City, and others looking to follow in step, to consider.