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Friday, June 21, 2024

How Manchester City became the most popular Premier League team in America

Whether it is Pep Guardiola appearing in an episode of Ted Lasso, Rodri scoring a treble-winning goal in Istanbul or a Fortnite player from Pennsylvania donning the club’s colours, Manchester City are threatening to become the Premier League’s leading force in the United States.

Data from Nielsen, compiled by sports media analyst Larry Johnson, reveals City were the most-watched English team in all competitions in the U.S. throughout 2023, with their total average viewership hitting 36.9million. Only Club America of Mexico’s top-flight Liga MX were above them in the table. 

For context, Manchester United, who many consider one of the biggest teams in the world, ended 2023 with a total average viewership of 13.4million, finishing below Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.

“Nielsen takes the average viewership for one game and will say they averaged, let’s say, 800,000 viewers over the course of two hours,” Johnson says when asked to explain how the data is compiled. 

“What I do is track it every day and the final table is the added viewerships combined. If Manchester City had two games at 800,000 viewers, then that would be 1.6million in total. It gives a general idea of two things: the most watched team in the United States and then also who is on TV the most.”

The Ted Lasso cast (and Noel Gallagher) at Manchester City last season (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The overall figure is inclusive of all fixtures, not just the Premier League, so City winning all but one of the four competitions they entered in 2023, losing 2-0 to Southampton in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, has worked in their favour.

Their Champions League final success was streamed in the U.S. by CBS, with the broadcaster revealing City’s treble-sealing 1-0 triumph against Inter Milan in June was watched by more than two million people.

Even though the numbers incorporate all competitions, City accumulating nearly triple the number of average viewers as neighbours United is a remarkable achievement. 

While their popularity in the U.S. may come as a surprise to general observers, it is something those behind the scenes at City have been working towards for years — and these 2023 results are proof their efforts are paying off.

According to Johnson, City’s profile in the United States has been on a one-way trajectory since 2020.

“Starting around the pandemic over here, and when the Premier League started overtaking everything as far as soccer goes, combined with being successful in the Champions League and other competitions, they really took off,” the media analyst adds.

It is therefore relevant that, beginning in 2017, City have visited the U.S. three times for their pre-season tours. Their first summer trip following the pandemic, in 2022, saw them play matches in Houston, Texas and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Guardiola’s side are due to travel there again this summer, and are in talks with Chelsea regarding a potential friendly against each other.

The United States is a significant market all Premier League clubs, and the elite sides throughout continental Europe, want to tap into. England’s top flight was, on average, the country’s most-watched football league throughout 2023, and its popularity is not going to wane as the sport builds towards the 2026 men’s World Cup, which the U.S. is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico.

For City, though, there is more to cracking America than being a successful football team on the pitch; they are also tapping into the culture, which they hope will stand them in good stead when it comes to breaking through.

Winning games and trophies, of course, is key, but so is Guardiola appearing in Ted Lasso with Jason Sudeikis, which led to the show’s cast being at City’s crucial match against title rivals Arsenal last April. 

For the club, it was a no-brainer to work with the hugely popular Apple TV show and doing so forms part of a wider strategy to connect with U.S. supporters via different touchpoints. This, in turn, gives those fans the opportunity to view City’s brand as something away from football. 

City player turned ambassador Shaun Wright-Phillips visits the Empire State Building in New York with last season’s haul of trophies (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust)

According to YouGov’s Football Index Platform, which collected data from American fans of the sport aged 18-40 between July 2022 and June 2023 and reflected ‘satisfaction’, City ranked No 1 in the Premier League for the strongest football brand in America.

City pointed to retail revenue being up 129 per cent in the U.S. during the 2022-23 season, with their YouTube views from the country also increasing by 152 per cent.

“We see ourselves as a sports entertainment brand,” Nuria Tarre, City Football Group’s (CFG) chief marketing and fan experience officer, told industry newsletter Marketing Brew in December. “We’re very open-minded; we’re not the traditional football brand that says, ‘This is just about football’.”

Tarre estimated that around 70 per cent of the club’s U.S. supporters are under the age of 35, while also saying 99 per cent of their global following live outside the United Kingdom.

City’s rise from a club who were in the third tier of English football 25 years ago to be current domestic, European and world champions has not been without controversy.

In February 2023, they were referred to an independent commission by the Premier League after being charged with 115 alleged breaches of financial rules between 2009, a year after their takeover by Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi United Group, and 2018. City deny any wrongdoing and said they were “surprised” by the charges and have a “body of irrefutable evidence” to quash them.

What shouldn’t be overlooked in their quest to conquer America is the fact City Football Group (CFG), the worldwide stable of clubs that City are the flagship team of, owns New York City FC of MLS. This gives them an operational advantage over their Premier League rivals and a better understanding of the local market, with Tarre saying City has around 10 employees based in New York who work on marketing and sponsorships for U.S.-based companies.

In November, City released their annual financial report for the 2022-23 season and announced revenues of £712.8million, which was a new Premier League record, and also posted a club-record profit of £80.4m, nearly double 2021-22’s £41.7m return.

Manchester City mascots, Moonchester and Moonbeam, at a Major League Baseball game in 2022 (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

NBC, another of the four traditional U.S. TV networks with ABC, CBS and Fox, is the home of the Premier League in the States and has the exclusive rights to broadcast all 380 matches per season until its contract expires in 2028.

United, Liverpool and Arsenal, generally speaking, are its most popular and frequently watched teams, but the time difference between England and the States means a lot of a club’s viewership will be determined by when their fixtures are played. The more Saturday 5.30pm (GMT) slots they receive, meaning the games start at lunchtime on the East Coast and at 9.30am on the West Coast, the more watched they are in the United States.

NBC tends to make this slot free-to-air, and it is usually its highest-rated window.

In contrast, the Saturday 12.30pm (GMT) slot is not favourable to the American audience. Two-thirds of the country won’t be awake on the West Coast, where the games are beginning at 4.30am, while the other third are barely awake on the East Coast, where it is 7.30am.

But what Americans do love is excellence and watching the best of the best, which leads them to tuning in to City’s matches.

No other Premier League side come close to matching the number of star players they have — Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Jack Grealish or Bernardo Silva, among many others — and there is a new generation of supporters who will follow players wherever they go in their club careers rather than picking one team and supporting them regardless.

This is something that will undoubtedly help City gain a new wave of younger U.S.-based fans whose first foray into the Premier League is via EA Sports FC 24, the hugely popular video game previously called FIFA.

What has also helped build City’s brand in recent years is their success in the Champions League, where they have reached at least the quarter-finals for six seasons in a row (they are through to the last 16 this season) and played in two of the past three finals.

There is a chance some football supporters in the U.S. won’t bother watching group-stage matches, as the time difference means games happen during the workday on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but will tune in when the knockout stages begin, with City invariably always being there.

And given the historic nature of City’s 2022-23 season, each of their fixtures had something riding on it and that led to them being in more high-profile TV windows, be that Saturday evening (including the Champions League final) or Sunday afternoon.

Casual viewers, the source added, also started to watch City because of the intrigue their historical run generated. In this regard, fandom in the U.S. is far more loose and a lot less tribal. Some supporters will have two or three teams they enjoy watching, rather than being wedded to one.

According to NBC, City appeared in three of their top-five most-watched Premier League matches in 2023, all of which were streamed on its Peacock platform.

The Athletic detailed how the Premier League was the most-watched football league in the U.S. throughout 2023, surpassing Mexico’s Liga MX average viewership for the first time. This, Johnson believes, will only help City’s cause as far as growth is concerned.

“The Premier League has found a regular television home in the United States and for most of my life they had been counting around from network to network,” Johnson said. “The popularity of the league, and not just the top six, will keep increasing.

“You know how Americans are: if something is really entertaining, then people will watch it — and the Premier League is that.”

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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