Ten years ago, Wimbledon FC became MK Dons after 115 years in South London, coining the phrases “Franchise FC” and “Franchise Football”–both derogatory terms. UK fans are not as used to their teams moving as fans of American sports are. While any community that loses its team is devastating, the heart of the community in South London was ripped from them. Although I’m sure people from Cleveland for instance would argue that just because it’s happened elsewhere before, and you know it could happen to you, it doesn’t make it any easier when it actually does come to pass.
The fury around the move at the time has led to no further teams moving since the Dons went to Milton Keynes–and it is unlikely to happen any time in the near future. However there is a new type of franchise football emerging. Last week New York City FC revealed their badge ahead of their inaugural season in 2015. How is this new franchise in the MLS any different from the already established MLS teams such as LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls? They are owned by another football club, Manchester City.
This is actually quite a clever move by Manchester City. European clubs have for some time now been engaged in activities to market themselves across the world through promotional activities and playing exhibition tours during their pre-season and some clubs have achieved huge success in the Far East garnering huge followings in the region. But so far, clubs have struggled to gain any traction in the USA.
With the continued growth of the MLS on both a domestic and international scale, Manchester City have found a way to establish a permanent presence in the US. The new badge manages to incorporate aspects of Manchester City’s branding, with their sky blue colour scheme and nod to the old badge, while incorporating elements of the local area’s history to establish a connection. It has been designed to look like an old New York subway token.
Establishing an international fan base is not the only potential benefit to Manchester City. On the playing side the subsidiary club could act as a feeder club in the same way Manchester United had an agreement with Royal Antwerp in the late 90’s to early 2000’s with young players going on loan to gain first team experience and Manchester United having first option on Antwerp’s players should they be interested in one. Then there are the potential financial benefits of the arrangement. Should the team become competitive and successful on and off the pitch this would start generating revenue through prize money and sponsorship. This offers a further benefit as extra revenue streams will be most useful to a large spending club like Manchester City in the age of Financial Fair Play, and with the potential to grow these streams further it would allow City to utilise their owner’s vast resources without penalty.
Manchester City can promote themselves through New York City and attract sponsors who would be interested in the City brand as a whole rather than two separate clubs. In theory should the exercise be successful Manchester City could grow clubs in other markets and it is not inconceivable that we could see teams like Canberra City and Shanghai City lining up alongside Manchester and New York under the City brand.
However as much as I feel that this is a good idea and a very worthwhile venture, it must come with a foreshadowed warning that none of the potential benefits to Manchester City could come to pass and New York City could become just another MLS club. The reason I point this out is that Manchester City are not the first team to try and establish a base in the USA with an official tie-in.
In 2006, Crystal Palace took the franchise model one step further by launching a team in Baltimore under the name Crystal Palace Baltimore, using the parent club’s badge and kits the team looked to gain the benefits of a feeder club and establish their brand in the USA. The team was placed in the USL Second Division and a couple of Palace youth players Charlie Sheringham (son of Legendary Manchester United Striker Teddy) and Lewwis Spence went on loan to Baltimore. However the experiment was short lived and in 2010 Baltimore cut its ties with the South London Club announcing its intentions to take a hiatus to rebrand and move forward but has yet to re-emerge from this hiatus.
Manchester City have started down a road that if successful could help them both on and off the field, but must beware that success is not guaranteed. Perhaps the fact that New York City will have an individual identity even though it will be within the broader City family, coupled with playing in the nation’s top division will allow greater recognition and a more sustainable model than the Crystal Palace experiment. Perhaps Manchester City will find the costs outweigh the benefits and in a couple of years New York City will have new owners. Whatever becomes the newest MLS franchise, it will be an interesting situation to watch and one that other top clubs will be keeping an eye on.
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