The Abu Dhabi Group: guardians of tradition?

Richard Heathcote

June has seen Manchester City’s owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group, announce the establishment of Melbourne City FC, following on from the creation of New York City FC in 2013. Playing in sky blue and sharing star players such as David Villa, these new clubs have been the object of scorn from various quarters due to a perceived lack of creativity in identity and a more general distaste at a novel attempt at global sporting domination.

Such criticism is misplaced. Manchester City’s owners have bucked the trend of redrawing the sporting landscape into a field of impersonal entertainment commodities which are deliberately rootless and devoid of idiosyncrasies. As unlikely as it may seem, nouveau-riche Manchester City can be cautiously welcomed as a champion of sporting tradition: their actions a clear example of sporting evolution, in contrast to the revolution carried out so disastrously in sport around the world.

Across the globe, tradition and local identity are the bedrock of team sport. While in certain cases, such as those of Celtic and Rangers, religious or ethnic identity is the defining characteristic of a club, localism and geography are by-and-large a team’s distinguishing feature. A supporter's football club, in the eyes of many, is simply an expression of where he's from.

Sports like cricket are even more direct on the matter, defining teams by their county, state (Australia, India), or province (South Africa, New Zealand). Meanwhile, the defining characteristic of sport in several major cities, such as London, Sydney, and Madrid, is sharp internal division into numerous clubs which fiercely defend their independence.

The concept of a unified London football team, trialled in the Fairs Cup in the 1950s, was poorly received across the city; attempts to amalgamate Australian Rules clubs in Melbourne in the 1990s were strongly and widely resisted, resulting in the successful retention of all but one top-level club to the present day.

The tribal, parochial basis for sport described above has been overtaken by an increasingly fluid and borderless world. Satellite television and the internet have globalised all sport, outflanking the concept of a local sport and a local team. The Premier League’s phenomenal international following has created overseas supporter and ownership bases for clubs from locations as uninspiring as Tottenham and Blackburn.

In Ireland, English clubs are widely supported: a 2008 survey found that over a quarter of a million Irish fans travelled to Britain that year to attend a match. Conversely, Monaghan United of the League of Ireland averaged gates of fewer than 200 in the years prior to its demise in 2012. The EPL-led soccer boom in Asia has been even more pronounced; kick-off times are routinely geared towards the Far East and clubs regularly undertake pre-season tours to the likes of Indonesia, China, and Japan, resulting in millions of new fans who identify with clubs on the basis of their appearance rather than their proximity.

This model has been taken up by other sports seeking to replicate the outstanding success of the Premier League. In cricket, the IPL (Indian Premier League) unites the world’s best players to, in effect, create a world T20 league which is only incidentally based in India. Such an attitude to sport copes well with the reality that populations are less static than in days gone by; local loyalties can be questioned because what is ‘local’ is unclear for increasingly large numbers of people. If a man from Wigan moves to Islington, do his children support the Latics or Arsenal?

City’s owners have therefore, by forming New York City F.C. and Melbourne City F.C., decided to – undoubtedly for envisaged commercial benefit – support an aspect of the traditional basis of sport. Their concept of a global network of clubs which base their identity on their location is a welcome divergence from the standard ‘modernisation’ which seeks to reduce concrete identity to nil.

This is most clearly visible in the near-universal addition of official nicknames to clubs. The ‘Cardiff Dragons’ and ‘Hull Tigers’, which Premier League owners have recently envisaged, follow the well-trodden path of sporting cultural vandalism for the benefit of wider, but shallower, appeal. Leeds Rhinos (Rugby League), the Victorian Bushrangers (Cricket), Port Adelaide Power (Australian Rules), Schwenninger Wild Wings (German Ice Hockey), and the Chiefs (New Zealand Rugby Union) provide an excellent spread of examples as to the extent to which this practise has become the norm, at the expense of locally-based identity; the place-name – if there even is one – is a mere appendage to the empty branding by which team is marketed.

This is part of the broader ‘Americanisation’ of sport, which has been adopted as a method of organising team sport to cope with levels of money and exposure which were unthinkable until relatively recently. A sport’s centre of gravity is relocated from its constituent clubs to a centralised, marketed business model where the league itself – and the overall sporting product – is king. Welsh rugby, for example, has centralised player ‘ownership’ to the WRU while dismantling the previous long-standing, bottom-up infrastructure in favour of one directed from on high; locally organised clubs, fixtures, leagues, and co-operative arrangements decreed invalid.

Similarly, practically all Australian Rules football is now controlled by the the national league (the AFL) with remaining organisations’ independence now largely or entirely conceded. The traditional state leagues have become compromised competitions subservient to the needs and desires of the AFL. The Victorian league (the VFL), is increasingly populated by AFL reserve sides, while the South Australian league (SANFL) this year saw the inclusion of an Adelaide Crows (AFL) reserve side. This is despite Adelaide’s creation as the representative of all (except one) of the SANFL clubs in the nation-wide competition. T

he wheel has come full circle. Worse, the AFL has wrought havoc in Tasmania by, among other things, forcing successful, historic clubs out of existence in order to develop the sport according to the league’s aims, with little regard for local sensibilities. While the specifics of the AFL are themselves unimportant, the point is clear; the Abu Dhabi Group is both in a position to withstand such strong-arm, centralised control and is evidently minded to do so.

Despite being trumpeted as a triumph for UEFA, the Financial Fair Play penalty recently agreed to by Manchester City is a clear win for the big-spenders; 65% of the fine was suspended and City will not be excluded from the Champions League in 2014/15, despite earlier threats to that effect. The sky blue wrist has been firmly slapped. Melbourne City therefore has a level of independence and protection which Melbourne Heart (the club taken over to become Melbourne City) could never have had as a standard A-League franchise. As such, Manchester City’s owners represent a rejection of the trend towards increasingly weak clubs in the control of their governing organisation.

In short, Manchester City’s creation of sister clubs in New York and Melbourne is a modern fusion of traditional sporting values with modern commercial and financial magnitude. As such, it represents an intriguing new model for team sport which may well be replicated in years to come. This development should accordingly receive a cautious welcome from those who have an interest in seeing that aspects of traditional sporting models survive – and thrive – in the delocalised, centralised sporting environment in which we find ourselves.

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