‘Best run club in the world': Manchester City fans and the legitimation of sportswashing?
Colm Kearns, Gary Sinclair, Guto Leoni Santos et al
International Review for the Sociology of Sport
Business School

A DCU-led study has revealed that a football club’s fans can be particularly significant contributors to, and actors within, sportswashing. The study examines in detail an under-researched area of longer term investment-based strategy of sportswashing, using English Premier League team Manchester City (MCFC) as an example.

Analysis of a popular MCFC online fan forum (over 77,000 members and active for almost 20 years), explored how supporters legitimate the actions of the club’s ownership regime. This study focused on three specific threads; MCFC’s 2019 FA Cup final victory (that completed a domestic treble), the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturning UEFA’s sanctions of MCFC in July 2020 and the club’s announcement of record profits in 2022. Researchers analysed more than 12,500 comments ranging across four years, using Python programming and application of Van Leeuwen’s framework for legitimation.

The study found forum users employ a variety of discursive tactics to absolve MCFC of any allegations of financial or moral wrongdoing, and present them as simply excelling within the rules. The motives of the Abu Dhabi United Group in purchasing the club are also explained in a fashion that dismisses the possibility of sportswashing as a journalistic flight of fancy. Manchester City’s owners have achieved legitimacy through convincing fans that they are appropriate and admirable stewards of the club's values, to the extent that fans themselves reassert this legitimacy among communication with each other.