AAfter 17 years, Manchester United are finally on the market and the downright detested ownership of the Glazer family seems to finally be coming to an end. But what does a good and realistic result for United supporters look like? What can a football supporter reasonably expect from an owner of his club in 2022?
The simpler days of the local businessman (always a man) who presides over the board, putting his hand in his pocket to build a new stand or sign a new player, compares favorably in the eyes of the fans to a world of sovereign wealth funds, oligarchs or American “sports entrepreneurs.” Yet the reality of those days was never as good as our sepia-toned collective memories suggest, and all recent deals for Premier League clubs indicate that it will be financially driven buyers looking to take over England’s leading clubs. Even local boy Sir Jim Ratcliffe is motivated more by his belief that Premier League clubs will continue to grow in value than his support for United. After all, he was trying to buy Chelsea.
However, it is not unreasonable for fans to expect an owner, whether financially driven or not, to understand a club’s history and culture and realize that they are the guardians of a cultural institution that will last long after they are gone. Football clubs endure, through ups, downs, relegation, promotion – even through insolvency, and they do so because the supporters endure, through families and friends, binding people together for a common cause.
For a football club owner, this persistence of loyalty is one of the benefits of ownership, but it places a responsibility on them to nurture the property they are temporarily in charge of. Even on the scale of United and Liverpool, whose American owners have also declared themselves open to a sale, the institution is more than a company. Supporters don’t change clubs like consumers change sports shoes or washing powder. The better owners – and Fenway Group probably fits that description – work to understand the institution they own, to work with the cultural groove of the club.
In many ways, owners and supporters need to be on the same page. And the paradox of the shift over the past 20 years from matchday to media and commercial revenue at the biggest clubs is that supporters going to the match are no longer the financial golden goose to be plucked, but rather part of the global offer, seen and heard on TV. The gradual acceptance of safe status in England shows a growing awareness that noisy, atmospheric grounds benefit both club and fans; the relationship is symbiotic and not oppositional.
Many adherents view the German ownership model as a template; banners reading “50+1” were prominently displayed on several grounds during protests against the European Super League. However, the model is difficult to apply in England. German clubs started out as membership organizations and the 50+1 rule was a way to allow controlled commercialization, not a mechanism to reverse the rampant commercialization seen in the Premier League. The value of English clubs makes such a structure virtually impossible to achieve. No current or future owner is likely to give away billions of pounds worth of value, not to mention scrutiny to supporters.
But supporter ownership on a material scale remains the best way to formalize and solidify the relationship between fans and owners. Recent discussions between the Manchester United Supporters Trust (Must) and the Glazers over a fan sharing scheme show the start of a way forward. Any transition to an element of supporter ownership will inevitably be gradual and frustratingly slow, but having supporter shareholders, especially organized by a properly constituted supporter trust, is good for the majority shareholder. The board of any company should welcome passionate, long-term, loyal customers to its share register, and a wise owner, keen to strengthen his relationship with the United fan base, would work with Must to give supporters the chance to own a real stake in the club.
As the structure of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter shows, even those with the deepest pockets can’t fund everything themselves. The acquisition of Chelsea by a consortium led by Todd Boehly has a significant element of debt, including a £500 million term loan and a £300 million revolving credit facility. Debt will almost inevitably be part of any United purchase, or at least part of any future investment plans for Old Trafford, but the lessons of the past 17 years are that excessive leverage, taken for the wrong reasons, can prove to be a godsend , which prevents investment and does not benefit the club.
All new owners at United must work to understand the true nature of what they have purchased, and the transitory nature of their connection to what constitutes an institution of cultural significance. We need owners who see supporters as partners, not problems, and who give them the opportunity to have a stake in the club. And after a billion pounds has flowed out of United solely for the privilege of paying off the Glazers’ debts, we need owners to show financial prudence and borrow only to reinvest in the club. That’s not too much to ask.
Andy Green is a Manchester United supporter and writer on football finance.