Manchester City Ownership Group Reportedly Eyes MLS Expansion

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IMay 9, 2013

Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. His private investment group purchased the Manchester City F.C. in 2008.
Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. His private investment group purchased the Manchester City F.C. in 2008.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Will the storied New York Cosmos franchise make a resurrection in Major League Soccer?  Although a New York City-based expansion team is set to enter the MLS and be based near Flushing Meadows, it will not be called the Cosmos.  That iconic name is being revived in the newly reconstituted, but lower tier, North American Soccer League.

Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is reportedly the frontrunner to purchase the newest MLS franchise, which would create a natural rivalry with the New Jersey-based Red Bulls.  The New York Times reported that the sheik, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, has entered the final stages of acquiring an MLS franchise.  Franchise expansions fees are expected to fetch $100 million.

Sheik Mansour's Abu Dhabi United Group already owns the English Premier League's Manchester City Football Club, which it bought in 2008 for $385 million.  Prior to the purchase, Manchester City was in dire straits.  The ownership group quickly turned things around.  The club qualified for the Champions League and won the FA Cup in 2011, and a year later won its first Premier League title in 44 years.  Today, the Manchester City soccer team is worth $689 million, according to Forbes’ valuations of soccer clubs.

MLS commissioner Don Garber expects the deal to be finalized soon.  Meanwhile, the U.S.-based league is gaining in stature.  The Washington Times recently ranked the MLS as the #7 best soccer league in the world behind leagues in Germany, England, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Mexico.  Last year, MLS overtook the NBA and NHL in average attendance, making it the third most attended sport on average in the U.S.

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The Abu Dhabi ownership group would bring additional legitimacy to MLS and would not be shy about investing large sums of money into sports franchises.  Sheik Mansour, who is deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, might be willing to open his wallet and bring some of soccer's greatest superstars to the MLS.  These players could include American-born players who often leave their native country to join more prestigious—and higher paying—global leagues.

In less than 20 years, the MLS has grown from 10 teams in 1996 to conceivably 20 teams today.  Last year, MLS television ratings were up across the board.  This bodes particularly well for MLS, which had negotiated a three-year broadcast deal with NBC Sports in 2011 worth $10 million annually.  Based on the increased popularity and ratings, the next broadcast deal in 2014 should be more lucrative.

A new franchise based in New York City would be a boon to Major League Soccer overall.  A new local rival will up the ante on the New Jersey-based Red Bulls, owned by GmbH, an Austrian-based company that in 2006 purchased the team while it was called the MetroStars.  The league is beginning to gain steam and compete with the major sports leagues in America.  Expect the trend to continue as more global eyes focus on the league. 

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.

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