Let’s face it, the Glazer family, esteemed owners of Manchester United, aren’t exactly the most popular lot amongst the fanbase. Their presence inspires a range of emotions from ambivalence to outright hatred. Yet, like it or not, the family doesn’t look like it’ll sell the club anytime soon. For the moment there’s no urgency to do so. The club is valued at over $3 billion and hoovers up money like a well-oiled machine, and even though it is public, the family controls the majority shareholding.
Yet, for the sake of argument, what if the Glazers decided to cash in their chips and put the club up for sale? There would be a limited range of potential acquirers, and while supporters would be happy to see the back of the Glazers, there would be a strong desired to ensure that the club is transferred to a safe pair of hands. In the spirit of speculative guesswork who might stump up if the Glazers put Manchester United up for sale?
The Red Knights III
Seven years ago Keith Harris, Jim O’Neill, Mark Rawlinson, Paul Marshall and Richard Hytner came together to form the so-called “Red Knights” – a phrase borrowed from a time pre-takeover. Coupled with the Green and Gold campaign there appeared to be an irresistible momentum that conjured images of the club being wrested from the Glazers’ grasp.
"If the Glazers sold there would be appetite for the Red Knights to reform or for another group of rich fans to band together."
It was a nice story for all involved, but the Glazers rode out the protests paying little heed to it as they focused on growing the club commercially.
If the Glazers decided to sell there would be an appetite for the Red Knights to reform or for another group of rich, like-minded fans, banding together to take over the club. The cost would be prohibitive given how much more valuable the club is compared to 2010. While this model would allow for groups such as the Manchester United Supporters Trust to come on board, any consortium would need to pool a substantial amount of money in order to off pull a deal. The best hope for this group would be to buy a stake, as an outright purchase is extremely unlikely.
Jim O’Neill once remarked that “egos” hampered the first attempted takeover. Imagine the number of factions needed to get along in order for a Red Knights III to push a deal through. It isn’t an impossible scenario, but a Red Knights revival appears to be very unlikely. It would require investors and supporters groups pulling together to make things happen.
Football has been awash with money from China in recent years. Players are being recruited to the Chinese Super League at great expense, while investors from the Far East have been buying stakes, if not taking over a number of football clubs.
The question is: why the sudden interest? The answer may be traced back to the appointment of Xi Jinping as President of China in March 2013. Xi is a huge football fan and it’s no coincidence that Chinese investors have been pumping money into the game locally and globally since he assumed office. It’s no stretch to suggest that the recent splurge has the blessing of Chinese authorities. The whole project, ultimately overseen by Xi, is to raise the country’s international profile and China’s soft power.
If United became available it is likely that there would be interest from Chinese investors. The commercial pull is immense, while the opportunity to own one of the biggest, most storied football clubs in the world is very attractive. If a billionaire such as Jack Ma, chairman of the Alibaba group, dipped his hands into his pockets he would have enough cash to purchase United with plenty of change to spare.
The variable is how long China can sustain its level of spending on football. Probably for some time yet. President Xi has already laid out his 10-year plan, running to 2025, to double the size of the Chinese sports economy. He wants to produce thousands of new players, pitches, and football academies. Players and overseas investments are just part of the big picture.
Lim is a name with whom many United fans will be familiar. Lim is both very rich – his net worth is $2.2 billion – and a big United fan. He is already owns, in full or part, Valencia and Salford City. The Singaporean has entered into business ventures with ex-Reds Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, so it would be natural for Lim to register his interest if the Glazers ever wanted out.
There are problems though that Lim would need to overcome. His stewardship of Valencia has been less than successful, exposing the risks of allowing super-agent Jorge Mendes to effectively run football recruitment for the club. Moreover, he would need to sell the Los Ché first before even attempting a bid for United.
Lim could leverage his relationship with the “Class of ’92,” using them as a front for any potential takeover bid, as well as enticing other investors into the pool. And then there’s his wealth – or lack of it. Though he is a billionaire, it’s unlikely that Lim could purchase the club outright. His best option would be a majority shareholding, rounding up groups of likeminded investors. However, the spectre of Valencia will always be a dark shadow.
Other potential buyers
There is no doubt that United would attract the interest of a wide variety of potential bidders, albeit from a pool that is very small. Those interested in football have their fingers in pies already. The Abu Dhabi group has funnelled money into Manchester City, while Qatari soveriegn funds have been focused on Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.
A single buyer could come forward. Rupert Murdoch attempted to buy United in 1998, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The billionaire no doubt has the resources to acquired the club but would he be interested in another tussle with the competition regulator? Then there is a whole host of billionaires for whom a plaything might be attractive.
United is a commercial behemoth and only the wealthiest of the wealthy could even begin to think about mounting a bid. More pertinent is that the Glazers appear unlikely to sell. The club is generating the family a healthy income in dividends and fees so unless they need cash, or there is another family feud, there’s little incentive to consider bids while the club’s value increases.