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The rise of Manchester City’s popularity in the U.S.

The rise of Manchester City’s popularity in the U.S.

“United, Liverpool, or Arsenal?” It was simple to sort through the preferences of American soccer fans for the first half of the Premier League’s existence.

The royal blue corner of London spread to the United States with Chelsea’s rise under Roman Abramovich in the early 2000s. However, during the 1990s, the top three continued to enjoy the most popularity.

From the early 1990s until 2013, the Premier League was aired across the United States through various television agreements with Prime Network, SportsChannel America, ESPN, and Fox, and English football’s most successful trio snatched up the majority of fans. Before the current TV agreement, fans were only able to see the clubs broadcast on cable television, and it would almost always be the clubs that were in contention for the title. Now, subscribers to NBC and Peacock have access to every top-flight game. Even though the blue side of Manchester enjoyed the Michael Johnson and Stephen Ireland era, they received limited exposure to an American audience that was starting to switch their focus from playing with the Premier League’s most captivating players on FIFA video games to watching them on television.

Under Alex Ferguson, who coached athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham with American celebrity that transcends the sport, United was the dominant club during this time, winning two Champions League medals and countless domestic accolades. Americans supported the best side in the city during that time, Arsenal, because of their success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while Liverpool grew their fan following despite not winning a Premier League trophy.

Seven Premier League championships, six league cups, and three FA Cups later—the most recent won on Saturday against Manchester United’s cross-town rivals—Manchester City have transitioned from up-and-coming to established forces, with a growing fan base that challenges the status quo’s hegemony in the United States.

City will become only the second club in English history to win the league title, the FA Cup, and Europe’s top club competition if they defeat Inter Milan in the Champions League final to complete the trifecta this year. Not even the most decorated English team, Liverpool, has won those three championships in the same year. It would cap off a remarkable climb for a team that played in England’s third division during the 1998–1999 season, the year in which United reached the peak of domestic and international football before winning promotion in a play-off final penalty shootout.

The popularity of City has increased as they have become a superpower in Europe. In 2023, City overtook Real Madrid as the most valuable football brand in the world, per Brand Football’s study. ending Real Madrid’s four-year stint at the top, with a €1.51billion ($1.61bn) revenue. Still, in the U.S., they lag behind England’s “legacy clubs” and Leeds United — who began the 2022-23 campaign with an American head coach and had three U.S. internationals by the season’s end – according to Brand Finance’s regional analysis.

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Manchester City making inroads with American soccer fans

But for ex-City forward Rodney Marsh, their regular pre-season trips to the United States during the 2010s helped them significantly close the gap on the more established names.

“I was sent out to cover City in 2017 when they came to the States for Sirius XM,” said Marsh, who made 118 league appearances for City between 1972 and 1976, where he won the majority of his nine England caps. “We went to a press conference with Vincent Kompany and Pep Guardiola, who were both outstanding in representing the football club. The manner in which they spoke and the integrity; it was almost like you could see a light bulb go off in people’s heads over here. It was like, ‘These are for real; this team is for real.’”

Since first traveling to the U.S. ahead of the 2010-11 season, City have toured the country on seven occasions. A YouTube video of last year’s tour of the USA featuring Jack Grealish and Erling Haaland experiencing Houston, Texas, has more than 600,000 views. Their presence on Instagram, with a following of 44.3 million at the time of writing, dwarves Arsenal (26.4m) and beats out Chelsea and Liverpool, with 40.1m and 42.4m, respectively. On Tiktok, the social media application most popular with younger users, only Manchester United’s 22.5m following is comparable with City’s 18.8m among Premier League clubs. Though the Twitter following on City’s USA brand account (189k) is a fraction of Chelsea’s (832k), for example, their growth on social media platforms popular with a younger audience signifies how their exploits on and off the pitch are making headway on English football’s historic powers.

For City’s FA Cup triumph, The Athletic attended a ticketed event at the Fox and Hounds pub in Studio City, Los Angeles, to breathe in the atmosphere created by the club’s Hollywood supporters’ group, among its largest in California. At the sold-out occasion, hundreds of City fans — with a dash of supporters in United red — crammed into two rooms at the British countryside-style pub situated a five-minute drive from Universal Studios, Hollywood

Though nary a City shirt from the indifferent years directly before the Abu Dhabi takeover was seen, there were shirts from the early 2010s and replicas of the late 1960s title-winning kit dotted around, suggesting their popularity is not brand new.

For Carlo Genovese, watching the game with a football-mad family who had travelled from New York City, he remembers feeling like an outcast in a City shirt before the trophies started rolling in.

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“I started supporting in the early 2010s; (Roberto) Mancini was the manager,” said Genovese, 27. “It was the season before they won the FA Cup for the first time in a long time, so this was right before all the big success. It actually started because my dad is a big Manchester United fan; he’d supported them since the mid-1990s, and he would always try and get me into it growing up. I hate serial winners, which is very ironic now, but at the time, City were very much the underdog in Manchester. I was drawn to the story; I loved the sky blue – they had a lot of appeal to me.”

As for Ronaldo Arteaga, named after the Brazilian superstar, his interest was piqued in 2008 when City signed Robinho from Real Madrid. Though his fandom reached new heights following the appointment of Guardiola and their subsequent success, he was one of many football lovers in America who grew up before the Premier League boom during the 2010s. Eye-catching players like Robinho, who featured heavily on easily-accessible YouTube skill compilations, prompted Americans of his generation to start following City.

“I was very much into a lot of the Brazilian players at the time, and I enjoyed his style of play. He was very flashy. I didn’t really have a team in England at the time, so when he joined City, I was all for it,” said Arteaga, 26. “After that, I loved players like David Silva and Samir Nasri, the short, technical players. I loved watching clips of them, and then, from that, I’d start watching the games on TV.”

Following the Premier League became much easier for American fans when NBC acquired the league’s broadcast rights for $250 million in 2013. The network made it possible for fans to watch every game of the world’s most popular football league on one broadcaster, which, according to NBC, paired with the success of the original Ted Lasso campaign (which is now up to 20 million views on YouTube) to boost the average viewing figures for games by 118% in the first season compared to the previous season where games were spread between ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer. This crucial change to the broadcasting picture coincided with a run of consistent success for City, who won the league title in NBC’s first season, beating out Liverpool in one of the most dramatic title races of the past decade.

“I think the NBC deal was huge. It was a huge influence on people because now you’re seeing every single game every weekend,” said Marsh, ‘Grumpy Pundits’ co-host on Sirius Radio. “Coupled with City winning games and winning championships on an annualised basis — it’s just thrust them into the spotlight. Even the people who didn’t support City had to care about them because they were always competing to win the league, which helped get them on people’s radars.”

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Being the first Premier League club with an All or Nothing documentary on Amazon Prime was another essential step to increasing their exposure to the casual fan. The fly-on-the-wall sports docuseries, which had previously detailed seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, gave insights into the backroom staff, coaches and players that fans were not accustomed to. The show, narrated by actor Ben Kingsley, chronicled the 2017-18 season, arguably the greatest Premier League campaign to date, where City became the first and only club to amass 100 points. It also dealt with the emotional fallout of a Champions League exit to Liverpool and how the team came together to support David Silva through the birth and aftercare of his premature son, Mateo.

Strategically, being the first club to have a dedicated docuseries on a major streaming platform proved to be a masterstroke. With goals, trophies, star names, and a legendary head coach, it should be no surprise that City are closing the gap.

“I mean, we’re still nowhere near close to Liverpool, United or even Arsenal – anyone who says differently is kidding themselves, but there’s definitely been major growth here, particularly in the past five years,” says Genovese. “When I was starting out, I don’t think many people even knew that Manchester had a second team, and now you look here, there are more City fans than United. From my experience here in the US, City fans tend to be more passionate. A lot of it comes down to the recent success and that they’re always on national TV because they’re always winning, et cetera et cetera. But the growth has been noticeable, for sure.”

As demonstrated in Brand Finance’s Football 50, Manchester United still represent the gold standard internationally for Premier League clubs, but their lack of recent success has opened the door for City to creep up, particularly with the next generation of supporters. The Amazon documentary, paired with the City Football Group, whose global reach extends to MLS with New York City FC and their dominance in the Premier League, makes them an easily accessible and attractive club to follow.

Matching United’s global presence is an immense challenge, but City is in a position that seemed unattainable a decade ago. If they maintain their upward trajectory with social-media-friendly personalities of Grealish and Erling Haaland’s calibre, it may not be long before the U.S. is bathed in the same blue hue as Manchester will be for this season’s trophy parade.

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