Hands up if anyone saw Manchester United as a potential buyer for the Central Coast Mariners? No? Didn’t think so.
The Sydney Morning Herald story that United are interested in buying the Mariners’ A-League license and relocating them to North Sydney has come out of left field.
In the sake of full disclosure, I am a Manchester United supporter. I would love to see the club buy the Mariner’s license. The money that United would contribute to the league would be very valuable, irrespective of whether the club is in North Sydney or Gosford, but United are not going to contribute cash for the sake of contributing to the Australian game. United are seeking a return on their investment or some other benefit.
Reports indicate that United are interested in purchasing the club, along with a rebranding and a move to North Sydney with the aim of creating a global network of football clubs similar to Manchester City’s City Football Group (CFG) and their purchase of Melbourne Heart.
But this motive does not make a lot of sense. Manchester City needed to establish the CFG to improve their global profile. While the club was winning Premier League titles, its global standing compared to the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and even United was laughable. No one in their right mind could argue that Manchester City have the same standing in global football as Real Madrid for example.
City do not have the historical or generational support to justify their status as a big club, so instead they turned to purchasing football clubs in other countries and using them to promote the City brand. This has worked to some extent. City can claim that their global profile has increased dramatically since the takeover by the UAE in 2008.
But United are a different story. The club already has a massive supporter base, so any rebranding of the club would likely not attract any more new members because they either would already be supporting the club or supporting another Premier League club.
It is much more likely that United view the Mariners as a farm for Australian talent, and why wouldn’t they? The Mariners have a history of contributing many players to the Socceroos. It is realistic to expect that United want to purchase players from the club and use them either for their own squad or, in a similar situation to the CFG, sell them for higher transfer fees, and thus gain a return on the investment.
But if this is what United wants, their plans for the Mariners become confusing. The Mariners were successful in establishing Socceroos, but this could be explained by the strong support from the local community. The Mariners whee able to create a small but passionate fan-base who showed up to games at Gosford. The resulting atmosphere is something to be admired, and while it has faltered in recent years, it has improved dramatically this season on account of the strong performance of the Mariners.
A relocation of the club to North Sydney strips the Mariners of their two most valuable assets that contribute to the strong performance of the club: the supporters and the stadium. It robs the idea of a local connection to the club. But even more importantly, the club is much more valuable in Gosford than it is in North Sydney.
If the club was moved to North Sydney, United would have to compete in Sydney against three other Sydney clubs. While there is the geographical differential in North Sydney, it will take a lot of effort for the North Sydney club to gather support in that region, as there are three A-League teams already in Sydney, so it’s likely that some of these people would already be supporting a Sydney-based A-League club. The cash-farm model may still continue to work in that North Sydney would be able to buy and sell A-League players to United, but the league would lose a vibrant, historic club.
Some may claim in favour of the relocation that the Mariners remain a small club plagued with financial difficulties. It is clear that European super clubs may not be interested in investing in a small club unless it was located in either Sydney or Melbourne, because doubts would remain as to whether there would be a return on investment.
But this ignores the realities of United’s business model. It is no longer about exposure for United, it’s about revenue. The club could be located anywhere in the country because it’s unlikely that a relocation of the club to North Sydney would provide a larger attendance than in Gosford, if not smaller (thus contributing to expenses). The revenue and return on investment for United comes down to being able to use the Mariners as a feeder club to buy A-League players cheaply and then sell them off for larger profits.
This also extends to the idea of a rebrand for the Mariners as well. United doesn’t need to promote its brand, so a rebrand would have next to no benefits whatsoever. If United owns the club they will still get revenue from the brand, irrespective of whether it’s written in red and white or blue and yellow.
This logic also applies to any super club that invests in the A-League, whether that is United, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. For these clubs, they already have exposure. The investment comes from being able to buy players cheaply and sell them off.
The skeptic would suggest that this turns clubs into nothing but development clubs, but I would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with that, provided it is supplemented with the development of a winning culture.
There are many leagues in the world that are development leagues for the larger European clubs, but crucially an element of competitiveness still exists. A development club does not just mean developing skills, but developing a mindset for winning titles.
From this perspective, Manchester United buying the Mariners makes a little more sense. The Mariners benefit from increased revenue, which in turn facilitates the development of a stronger squad. While the main aim of this squad is to eventually play in Europe, that does not mean that the culture of winning trophies would not also be developed as this mindset is needed to survive in Europe.
As such, should Manchester United decide to purchase the Mariners, it’s in their best interest to keep the club as the Mariners and in Gosford as moving damages the value of the Mariners, and there is no brand justification for United to rebrand or relocate.