Purpose – Recent years have witnessed an increasing number of cities develop strategies. The discourse of strategic management has become an obligatory point of passage for many city managers. This paper starts by posing an ostensibly simple question: why do cities need strategies? The commonsensical answer to the question is: because cities compete with each other. This paper aims to problematise the seemingly natural link between cities, competition and strategy. It also aims to explore the role that calculative practices play in creating city league tables that, in turn, function as the a priori condition that generates competition between cities. Design/methodology/approach – This paper is interdisciplinary and draws on the related disciplines of accounting, organization theory and strategy. The argument unfolds in four steps: first, it briefly provides some theoretical background for analysis and relates it back to strategizing and accounting as a calculative practice; second, it scrutinizes league tables as an a priori of competition; third, it discusses the implications of the argument for city management and critical accounting; finally, it concludes with a discussion of the power effects of those calculative practices that shape strategizing in cities through the production of competition. Findings – This paper argues that city strategizing is best understood as a set of complex responses to a new competitive arena, one rendered visible through calculative practices, manifested through city rankings. The paper makes five key contributions: one, league tables reduce qualities to a quantifiable form; two, league tables create an order amongst an heterogeneous ensemble of entities; three, league tables stimulate the very competition they claim to reflect; four, once competition is accepted, individual players need a strategy to play the game; and five, league tables have important power effects that may result in unintended consequences. Practical implications – The paper contributes to understanding how calculative practices relate to strategy; it explores the organizational environment in which city managers strategize; in addition, it discusses the problem of civic schizophrenia. Originality/value – The paper seeks to open up an agenda for studying city management, strategy and accounting.