Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

We are in the investment phase of Indian football: City Football Group's Roel de Vries

The Indian market hasn't matured yet, but commercial and enterprise value will multiply in the long run, says the COO of the group that owns Manchester City

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jul 17, 2023 01:14:01 PM IST
Updated: Jul 17, 2023 01:20:42 PM IST

We are in the investment phase of Indian football: City Football Group's Roel de VriesCOO of City Football Group Roel de Vries (second from right), along with Mumbai City co-owners Bimal Parekh (extreme left) and Ranbir Kapoor (second from left), and CEO Kandarp Chandra (right) unveil Mumbai City's new crest in Mumbai on Friday. Image: Mumbai City FC

In 2019, Mumbai City FC joined a global network of football clubs as England’s City Football Group (CFG’s) acquired a majority stake in it. The Indian Super League (ISL) outfit, co-owned by Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor, is now a part of a portfolio of 13 teams, headlined by Manchester City, the holders of the historic Continental treble (the Premier League, FA Cup and the Champions League). CFG’s COO Roel de Vries was recently in Mumbai to unveil the new crest of the club representing the city’s key motifs—the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the local train and the coastline. The former Nissan executive, who joined CFG just months after its investment in Mumbai City, sat down for an exclusive chat with Forbes India. Edited excerpts:    

Q. What are some of the areas of synergy between the 13 clubs in your portfolio?  
To run a good football club requires a lot of expertise that you need to build up over a long time. You cannot just walk in, buy 11 players and win games. There's a lot of knowledge and science involved in it. And especially now, with more and more data available. If we have that expertise in Manchester, and also in India, or France, or Italy, and we connect these people, all of us would become much better.  

What can we bring to Mumbai? In the world of analytics around the game, we have tools, software and people that are at the absolute top. The same applies to nutrition and the medical field. How do you develop a very good athlete? How do you avoid injuries, how do you ensure players recover quick enough from injuries? We have top knowledge here.  

And that's just on the football side. On the commercial side, if we do pitches to potential sponsors or create content for our fans, and have people all over the world doing this, you have a community of people that help and motivate each other. Sometimes people are surprised we do this in sports. But I’ve spent most of my career in companies outside of the world of sports and these are very normal there.

Q. What do you look for in a club before you invest in it?
We don't always invest for the same reason. It's not a formula. I'll give you some examples that are uniquely different. There are a few markets in the world where football is already very big and there's a lot of talent in those markets coming through. And we want to be in those markets. Like Italy, France, Brazil and, of course, the UK. We believe that if we have a football club in those markets, we can attract and develop talent. Also, if we take these clubs and we bring them to the top level of those markets, they are worth a lot of money. We see an enterprise value gain here.  

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Then we have a few common, strategic markets, where we say that, if, in the coming 20-30 years, we really want to be a strong player in the world of football, then we have to be in these markets. India is one such. India’s isn’t a big football market yet, but it will become one. We want to help this market grow and be part of it. Look at Manchester City—it’s over 100 years old and has always been a component of the UK football landscape. But you don't just get to the top, you need to be part of that world to rise.

That's why we wanted to be in India. I do believe, in the long run, India will have commercial value, enterprise value and we will be able to develop talent. But we're not in that phase yet—now, we are in the investment phase and to help the league in India to become bigger.

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Q. Many sports conglomerates operate with a diversified portfolio. Stan Kroenke, for example, owns PL club Arsenal, NHL's Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets of the NBA and NFL's Los Angeles Rams. Has the CFG ever considered diversifying into other sports?

You’ll notice one element—that sports organisations have all grown in value, whether an NBA or an NFL team or a football club. So you have companies that have been investing in those properties because they believe these will grow in value, and it’s been true.  

What we do is slightly different. We also believe that football clubs will grow in value, and to that extent, the philosophy is same, but we want to build a multinational that has knowledge in a specific field. We want to focus on two things—one, football as a sport because there's a lot of expertise that we can use to make clubs better all over the world; and two, what I would call entertainment and content. Because our business is not so much football, but much more media and entertainment. We make our money from broadcasting, from sponsorship or from the content that we do, or having people come to the game. That's actually a big entertainment business that we have, and that’s a lot of areas to invest in—marketing, content, media, what have you.

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But the reason why we stick to only football is because we want to be this big global group with knowledge in a specific field. Go deep instead of wide. I have previously worked with Nissan, a company which did cars but not scooters. Hero, on the other hand, are experts in scooter, but they don’t do cars. Similarly, football is the focus for us.  

Q. Your flagship club Manchester City has seen a record-breaking year last season in terms of both revenues (£613 million) and profits (£41.7 million). What are the factors that have contributed significantly towards it?
The main thing, and it might sound strange, is what I call stability. If you look at Manchester City, for many years, we’ve been very stable in terms of management and everyday processes. We didn't change too many coaches, we didn't change too many players, but there has always been a mindset of continuous improvement. That's paying off, not just in football, but also in content. We are the most followed club on YouTube, we are now among the biggest in terms of brand value.  

If you look at revenue, one of the reasons we are now at the top is because of our on-pitch performance—if you do well in the Champions League, there's a lot of revenue coming from it. The quantum of money is related to how well we’ve done on the pitch. But ask me why we won the treble or why we have so much sponsorship revenue, it’s because for many years, we’ve built a clear vision and become a little better every day.

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Q. The football market in India isn't like the UK. Here, cricket trumps every other sport. What strategy have you adopted to make forays here?  
It will take time. Football in India can’t overtake the number of cricket followers easily because it takes a generation; following sports is a habit. If you are an Indian, 30-35 years or older, your life has been cricket. In football, for instance, if you are a City fan, you won't easily go and support another club.  

But I see a lot of positives in India. The number of people watching the Premier League is growing. In terms of participation, grassroots football is growing. And that needs to continue, so that when these young people turn 20, they love football as much as cricket. The ISL, together with the clubs, need to work on this. You can do certain things as a club, but if the league doesn't grow, I don't think a club can grow much more.

A lot of it involves making the sport visible, to make sure there's a good broadcasting strategy so that more Indians can watch football. And we, as clubs, need to invest a lot in our content and go after young people. Only then will the club and the game grow.  

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Q. Will we ever see Erling Haaland play a pre-season friendly in India? Or Pep Guardiola spending some time with Mumbai City?
We would love to. Pre-season games are normally organised by promoters and you need a few clubs to come together. Like, we’ll now go to Japan and South Korea, where we’ll also play against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. So, we need to get a promoter to get a few clubs to India.  

Would we see Pep spending time with Mumbai City? Don’t know about his physical presence, but a lot is happening behind the scenes. Mumbai City coach Des Buckingham talks a lot to Brian Marwood, who oversees the CFG clubs and who got Pep to come to Manchester City. A few weeks ago, during the final of the Champions League in Istanbul, all the coaches and sporting directors of the CFG clubs had come together with Txiki Begiristain, CFG’s director of football and Pep’s boss. They talk all the time, and there is a lot of exchange of ideas going on behind the scenes.