Chelsea have effectively sewn up this season’s Premier League title already. They will have more of a battle to win the FA Cup too but it would be a surprise if they were not at Wembley for the final on 27 May.
But all of that mere football is just a precursor or a proxy for the real contest going on between the Premier League’s biggest clubs, which takes place all over the world, all year round. That is the battle between the brands, to make sure that they are visible and appealing as they can be to consumers and sponsors all over the world.
That is why Manchester United announced on Monday afternoon that they will be going to the USA and Canada for their five-match summer tour. Or why it was revealed in The Independent that City Football Group (CFG) will be expanding into South America next, with an imminent partnership deal with a club in Uruguay.
That partnership will help City to sign players from South America, and all top Premier League clubs are pursuing clubs to work with on that continent. But ultimately CFG is a commercial enterprise, an attempt to plant flags in City branding in key target markets across the world. Ferran Soriano has always wanted CFG to have a club on every continent. Soon enough they will add South American to North America (New York), Australia (Melbourne) and Japan (Yokohama), with China next to come.
China is the next big competition for Premier League clubs trying to gain access to the world’s biggest potential football market. Knowing that the Chinese government is determined to win the World Cup by 2050, they are determined to secure whatever market share they can, if that market does indeed become fertile.
The Chinese Super League (CSL) has become a fascinating proposition for exactly that reason. City are far from alone among Premier League teams in trying to expand into the CSL, whether in partnership with an existing team or even in establishing a new franchise. At least 10 of the 20 Premier League clubs are currently exploring similar plans.
The reality is that teams are constantly competing to get their brand ahead and visible. Chelsea have their celebrated Asian Soccer Schools, set up in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Bangkok. These provide football facilities on a distinctive branded blue astroturf. The implications for Chelsea’s long-term support base in Asia are obvious.
It is the head-start that Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have in this area that has prompted City to think big in terms of CFG. It has given them a differentiating factor which their rivals do not have, and is thought to have made the crucial difference in attractive recent big partnerships such as Nissan. That is not the only benefit and City have pooled expertise through the branches that make up CFG, City Football Services, City Football Marketing, and so forth, to save on costs. City have started to use CFG to give players and even coaches, in Patrick Vieira, new experience of types of football, as a career development scheme.
It has been so successful that it is no surprise that other clubs are working together for this type of mutual benefit. The Red Bull clubs, Liepzig, Salzburg and New York, are a fantastic example of brand promotion, even if they do not have the deep links that the CFG teams have. The Pozzo family network of clubs has pooled knowledge and resources, which is to say, players, to turn Watford from a Championship side into a Premier League one, and a far more valuable entity as such. But there is nothing on the football landscape quite as ambitious as CFG, or not yet, and with South American and Chinese partnerships coming soon it is only going to get bigger.