Manchester City’s brand is also top of the pile

SAY WHAT you will about Manchester City, but their enormous wealth is being targeted well and in a very focused direction compared to some of their rivals. City have topped Brand Finance’s Football 50 for the first time with a brand value of € 1.5 billion, leapfrogging Spanish giants Real Madrid and pulling clear of their domestic competitors. Although Real Madrid have the strongest brand (built over decades), and City’s rating is AAA compared to the AAA+ of Real, Barca, Manchester United and Liverpool, their rise to the top of the brand value list – they were ninth as recently as 2017 – dovetails nicely with their on-pitch success and revenue growth. Since the pandemic, City’s value has increased by 34%, an indication of the robust nature of their brand. 

Brand Finance’s top 10 includes eight of the dozen teams that were behind the European Super League, only Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, who sit in sixth and seventh place respectively, were not advocates of the aborted project. Eight clubs have an enterprise in excess of € 3 billion, a list that City top once more.

Given Manchester City have already completed the “double” and that could become a “treble” in 2022-23, one can safely assume their brand will only strengthen in the near future. The City Football Group, the multi-club ownership model with MCFC at the hub, continues to expand, and over the past year has invested in clubs in Italy and Brazil. The club will always be the subject of media attention and speculation because of its ownership and its transfer market activity, not to mention scrutiny over its financial operations, but few can deny the strategic nature of their business.

City’s brand value of € 1.5 billion is just ahead of Real Madrid’s € 1.46 billion and the two nearest English competitors, Manchester United (€ 1.36 bn) and Liverpool (€ 1.36 bn). Real ended the 2022-23 season with some disappointment after finishing 10 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and losing out to Manchester City in the Champions League. They are also at something of a fork in the road regarding some of their older players such as Karim Benzema, who has moved to Saudi Arabia. Real have been upgrading their stadium, a major project that is still in progress, which meant they had to borrow € 360 million to fund the initiative.  Barcelona, whose financial problems have been well documented, have the third highest brand value at € 1.38 billion – their La Liga title win will come as welcome relief after the turmoil of the past two years, which saw them lose, because of restrictions on their expenditure, key players such as Lionel Messi. Real and Barca continue to be way ahead of their nearest rivals – Atlético Madrid, who finished third in La Liga, have a brand value of just € 550 million. Go further down the list of Spanish clubs in Brand Finance’s analysis and the 10th highest La Liga club has a value of a mere € 55 million.

The gulf between the Premier League’s top clubs is quite staggering; while Manchester United and Liverpool are not too far behind City, the London trio of Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea struggle to get above € 1 billion. But deep deeper and the real chasm emerges – the seventh highest Premier club is West Ham, with as brand value of € 301 million and Everton (in 10th), are just below € 200 million. Newcastle United, who enjoyed a high level of brand value growth (+31%), have a value of only € 250 million, a figure that will surely rise in 2023 thanks to a return to Champions League football.

If the Premier looks to have troubling imbalances, the situation in France is bizarre – Paris Saint-Germain’s brand value is € 1.1 billion, but the second highest French club is Olympique Marseille at € 173 million. This underlines the financial power of PSG in being able to acquire player assets like Messi and Neymar. But it also shows what an achievement it was for a club like Lille (brand value € 41 million) to finish above the Parisian all-stars as they did in 2021. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising critics refer to a season in which PSG are usurped as a year in which the new champions didn’t succeed in winning Ligue 1, but PSG merely lost the title.

In 2022-23, Bayern Munich were almost unseated by Borussia Dortmund, but the challengers capitulated on the final day and the reigning champions made it 11 Bundesliga victories in a row. Bayern’s brand value is € 1.1 billion, which is double Dortmund’s. Then comes RB Leipzig, the DFB Pokal winners, with a value of € 222 million.

Italy is the closest thing to a democracy among the top leagues. Napoli’s scudetto was their first since 1990 but it meant that Serie A has had four different title winners in four years, a welcome development after an era of Juventus domination. Juventus have had a difficult time and are still uncertain about their future after the league imposed a points deduction over problems with their transfer activity. Inevitably, Juve’s brand value has suffered and dropped by more than 10%.  Their value is € 631 million, which is € 122 million higher than Inter, compared to € 210 million a year earlier. AC Milan’s value increased by an impressive 33% to € 358 million, which closed the gap on Juventus by € 163 million. Napoli’s value has the potential to increase in 2023-24, possibly even stronger than the 31% it grew by over the past 12 months. Looking beyond the next year, the two Milan clubs may be entering a period of sustained improvement in their brand should the new stadium project reach its conclusion in the near future. Inter, of course, are playing Manchester City the Champions League final and could add to their three successes in the competition.

Brand Value’s report confirms the power in global club football is still very much in Europe. There are no US teams in the top 50 and the only non-European is Brazil’s Copa Libertadores holders Flamengo, with a value of € 98 million. It is difficult to see this changing in the near or medium term.

Miami advice: Don’t sign Messi

IN CASE you didn’t know it, let’s just confirm that Lionel Messi is bigger than French champions Paris Saint-Germain. He’s also substantially bigger than Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pension Fund League and he’s richer than almost every club in the world. He’s certainly more prominent than Inter Miami of America’s Major League Soccer. 

Should Inter Miami succeed in luring Messi to the US, it would certainly be good for brand Beckham, but would it actually add to the credibility of MLS? The marketing guys would certainly pitch it as a sign of the league’s power, but they would be kidding themselves because the attraction wouldn’t be the league, the club or the chance to rub shoulders with Leytonstone’s biggest export. It would be, purely and simply, about money, which we know is a key element in any relationship with someone like Messi. Signing a 35 year-old who could, if we’re honest be sidelined at any moment, is a risky business, particularly if you give him a three-year deal. If he was 25 or even 30, it would be impressive, but he’s not and it isn’t really.

Inter Miami’s owners are keen to make their club into a credible force, but they made a big mistake in hiring Beckham buddy Phil Neville. This was the sort of appointment that a lower league club would make, the misguided belief that a successful playing career equates to an equally glittering managerial career. Neville’s record as coach of England’s women team was unimpressive – a win rate of 54.29% for a side that is ranked among the top teams in their field. His win rate at Inter Miami was just 38.89% as they sunk to the bottom. Beckham claimed it was a tough decision to sack him – doesn’t every club say that? – but if his original appointment wasn’t a case of “jobs for the boys”, why was it so daunting?

Messi at PSG didn’t work because of who he is and what the club represents. It’s a squad full of big money signings that is rarely tested on a weekly basis. They underperform when the competition gets harder and because of their resources, they are able to sign any ego they like. Messi was upstaged by Mbappé to a certain degree and, as we saw when he decided to jet off to Saudi, Messi does what he pleases. If a club is trying to generate a team ethic, this simply doesn’t work.

Imagine someone like Messi rolling up at Inter Miami with a loop-hole contract that finds a way to work round the MLS salary cap and includes corporate tie-ins with major brands. While his team-mates might say that playing with a legend – isn’t everyone a legend these days? – is the greatest thrill of their careers, it would be in the knowledge that his contract had blown open the MLS ethos of democracy and realistic wage bills for the roster.

It would, on a broader scale, damage the image of MLS and portray it, to some extent, as a resting ground for ageing stars. Messi’s arrival might trigger a wave of yesterday’s men arriving in the US just as they did in the 1970s in the old NASL days. Admittedly, Messi is an extraordinary talent, but there is a danger that US football might repeat its mistakes of the past, at a time when MLS is growing in stature, quality and economic power. But just how many players are there that have genuine cachet in their late 30s?

Of course, Messi may decide to move to Saudi Arabia and renew his rivalry with that other fantastic beast, Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 has been trying to convince the world that Saudi Arabia could become a top five league in the coming years, but few are buying into that. And if all else fails, he could go “home” to Barcelona, but the club’s financial problems and their team-building plans may not accommodate him. The Catalans are, for all their current issues, a bigger football entity than Messi.

There is another side to the entry of Saudi Arabia into the heritage player market. If the league suddenly becomes a place where veterans go to squeeze the last drops of juice out of their careers, isn’t it just feeding the current trend of rich oil-states buying up football’s prized assets? As for clubs such as Inter Miami, hiring Messi would make headlines for a while, but it would do very little for the long term development of the club. Think longer term, guys.