MUMBAI (Reuters) - The owners of Premier League champions Manchester City have agreed to buy 65% of Indian soccer team Mumbai City FC, expanding their global stable of clubs to eight in countries from China to Japan to the United States.
The City Football Group (CFG) announced the deal just a day after it agreed to sell a stake to U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake for $500 million, making it the most valuable soccer group in the world with a $4.8 billion price tag.
While rivals such as Manchester United have focussed on building their brand and global following based on one team, CFG has acquired clubs around the world and modelled them on the Manchester City style of play and off-field organisation.
The strategy has helped boost the exposure and popularity of the Premier League champions, whose fortunes have been transformed after decades in the doldrums thanks to an infusion of cash from Abu Dhabi since 2008.
Announcing the Mumbai City deal, Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano said the group had been looking for years at soccer in India and the Indian Super League (ISL), which is currently in its sixth season.
“Our goal is long term, we are here to stay,” he told a news conference in Mumbai. “We are not here to lose money, we will look to help the league generally improve so that everybody makes money, including us. It will take time, we are patient.”
Mumbai City FC’s home ground is the Mumbai Football Arena, which has a capacity of just 8,000 while the team is sitting in seventh place in the 10-team ISL after five games. “We believe that this investment will deliver transformative benefits to Mumbai City FC, to City Football Group and to Indian Football as a whole,” CFG Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said in the statement.
Reuters had reported earlier on Thursday that CFG, which is majority owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was likely to acquire a majority stake in Mumbai City.
Existing shareholders in the Mumbai club, including Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor and chartered accountant Bimal Parekh, will control the remaining 35% stake.
Cricket-mad India is a massive underachiever as far as soccer is concerned and the country of 1.3 billion people has yet to make a single appearance at a World Cup finals.
A number of European clubs have, however, set up academies on a franchise basis to get a foothold in a potentially huge market. Spain’s La Liga has invested in a network of training centres to keep an eye on emerging talent and to encourage sales of strips for teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Traditionally quite popular in Goa, Kerala and Kolkata, interest in soccer in India has grown over the past decade with the arrival of hundreds of artificial pitches in cities such as Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, which have drawn in a young population previously focussed chiefly on cricket.
“It is a great endorsement of the increasing appeal of Indian football and for all football fans in India,” Nita Ambani, founder chairperson of the ISL, said in the City Group statement.
English Premier League and European Champions League games now draw millions of viewers and are easily available on India’s big streaming networks for subscriptions of $7 to $13 a year.
The ISL is promoted by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and TV network Star India, which is owned by Walt Disney.
According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council, soccer had a total of 498 million viewers in India in 2018 last year compared with 741 million for cricket.
Mumbai City has had Premier League veterans such as Freddie Ljungberg, Nicolas Anelka and Diego Forlan as marquee players in the past. The first edition of the ISL was won by Atletico de Kolkata, which then counted Atletico Madrid as a co-owner.
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Mumbai and Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Writing by Swati Bhat; Editing by Keith Weir and David Clarke
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