Talk to Manchester United fans about why they don’t like the Glazers and it comes down to one word: love. The club’s American owners do not share the passion of its followers. For them, how their team fares is as important as their families, friends and jobs.
The source of this conflict isn’t so much that the Glazers borrowed the money to buy the club and secured the debt against United. Nor is it that they’re foreign: there have been plenty of football bosses who were born overseas. No, it is that they rarely go to Old Trafford and sit with the Red faithful. Add to that the club’s sustained failure to recapture the glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson, when it won every major honour and did so repeatedly, and the stage was set for a prolonged outpouring of bile and violence.
When the Glazers bought the club in 2005, many were concerned about their use of high-interest loans, secured against the club’s assets, to complete the £800-million purchase. The supporters felt their club was being stolen. Such was their anger that, after their first game, the Glazer brothers, Joel, Avie and Bryan, left the ground in the back of a police van. Since then, they have had every opportunity to explain themselves, to show that the deal, while clever, did not affect the playing side; that under them, United would remain top of the tree. But they didn’t, and the opprobrium stuck.
Such is the opaque nature of United’s finances that it has been impossible to say how much, exactly, the owners have taken out of the club in personal loans, consultancy payments and dividends. But now we have a rough idea, after Sir Jim Ratcliffe paid £1.25 billion for 25% of the club. A Manc and lifelong United fan, he’s viewed by some as a returning saviour.
For the rest of the business world, though, the deal represented an important signal as to where the Glazers think sport is heading. After all, they had the chance to sell the entire club, and end the personal onslaught, but they preferred to retain 75%. In other words, after 19 years, it seems the insults and brickbats were a price worth paying.
Why might this be? Well, despite the lack of public warmth, the Glazers adore owning United. It’s their calling card, affording them a cachet they would not otherwise possess. They attend Formula One and the cricket in the Indian Premier League. United has a pavilion at Davos, the only football club to do so, while Avie is a regular at the World Economic Forum, mixing with the world’s business and political leaders.
Then there’s the belief that United could be worth significantly more than Ratcliffe’s valuation — £10 billion rather than £5 billion. If Chelsea, not even among the top two teams in London based on commercial firepower, could be sold for £4 billion in 2022, then United must be worth at least twice that.
So goes the theory — and it’s not hard to see why. While the players have underwhelmed on the pitch in the Glazer years, United’s marketeers and salespeople have excelled. As the media spent years focussing on the players attending Carrington, United’s training facility, the Glazers were busy assembling a 100-strong sales and advertising workforce 200 miles to the south, in London. The supporters complained, rightly, that the roof at Old Trafford was leaking. Carrington, too, has seen better days. Meanwhile, The Cliff — the training ground that produced the legendary “Busby Babes”, that enabled the Phoenix-like resurrection of the team after the Munich air disaster, then saw the likes of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and the “Class of ‘92” — fell into disrepair. Not, however, the sumptuous premises in Pall Mall and, after they proved too small, in Mayfair.
When making their decision, the Glazers will also have considered how football as a sport is set to change. Already, players are testing micro-cameras on their shirts. The idea is that, thanks to Augmented Reality (AR) technology, we will be able to see the action unfold as if we are a particular player, or even the referee.
Similarly, avatars are in their infancy. As one City executive said to me recently: “Just think, if people are prepared to pay to watch Abba perform, knowing it’s not really Abba, how could that work for football? They could be at a stadium in Asia watching avatars of the United players playing in a match.” Online betting is also a consideration. For United, which has a massive following in Asia, where gambling is huge, the prospects are enticing.
In the US, meanwhile, which is due to host the next World Cup, the influence on English football is already sizeable. It’s no coincidence that two US-owned British clubs, United and Liverpool, were among the main drivers of an enormously lucrative new European Super League. Of course, the initial proposals were howled down by fans, the media and politicians, but they are now being floated again. United has said it is opposed, but it’s hard to imagine that, if the league did get the go-ahead, the biggest club would not take part.
All of which points to United still representing a valuable investment. And yet, it seems the Glazers still struggled to make a decision. Most obviously, they don’t like partnerships; their father Malcolm, who created the family’s wealth, preferred operating alone and so do they. They’re suspicious, keen to remain in the shadows. Hence a 241-page “pre-nup” with the British tycoon. It is revealing that, among its myriad clauses filed at the New York Stock Exchange, is an agreement between both parties to not criticise the other in public. Glazer-Ratcliffe is not a marriage galvanised by natural attraction and desire; it’s a business arrangement that errs heavily on the side of caution.
For his part, Ratcliffe receives a great dollop of kudos and positive PR. He’s a local lad, and the first in the queue for when the Glazers do decide to depart. Until then, his holding is going to deter any other potential suitors. It’s as much an investment for the future as victory now.
In a smart first move, money has been put aside to repair the roof which will earn him instant acclaim. But it remains to be seen whether he can go on and earn the fans’ affection. As with the Glazers, he is not the sort to deal with partners; he likes to be in sole control. Who decides if a transfer should go ahead, and who decides to raise the offer and blow the opposition away? It stands to reason that it will be those who speak for three-quarters of the amount being paid.
As for the United fans, at least they now have a reason to hope. Yes, it will still be money that talks at the top. But when, on match-day, they look up at the Director’s Box, it’s unlikely there will be empty seats.