After 17 years, Manchester United are finally on the market and the roundly detested ownership of the Glazer family appears finally to be coming to an end. But what does a good, and realistic, outcome for United supporters look like? What can a football supporter reasonably expect of an owner of their club in 2022?
The simpler days of the local businessman (always a man) chairing the board, putting their hand in their own pocket to build a new stand, or to sign a new player, compares favourably in fans’ minds 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-tinted collective memories suggest, and all recent transactions for Premier League clubs indicate it will be financially driven buyers looking to acquire England’s leading clubs. Even local lad 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 tried to buy Chelsea.
It is not unreasonable, however, for fans to expect any owner, whether financially driven or not, to understand the history and culture of a club, and to realise they are custodians of a cultural institution that will last long after they have gone. Football clubs endure, through ups, downs, relegation, promotion – even insolvency, and they do so because the supporters endure, through families and friends, tying people together in common cause.
For an owner of a football club, this persistence of loyalty is one of the attractions of ownership, but it places an onus on them to nurture the asset they have temporary charge of. Even at the scale of United and Liverpool, whose American owners have also declared themselves open to a sale, the institution is more than a business. Supporters don’t switch clubs like consumers switch brands of trainers 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 should be aligned. And the paradox of the shift over the last 20 years from matchday to media and commercial income at the largest clubs is that match-going supporters are no longer the financial golden goose to be plucked and rather part of the global offering, seen and heard on TV. The gradual adoption of safe standing in England shows a growing understanding that noisy, atmospheric grounds benefit both the club and the fans; the relationship is symbiotic not oppositional.
Many supporters look to the German ownership model as a template; banners emblazoned with “50+1” could be seen prominently at various grounds during protests against the European Super League. Yet the model is hard to apply in England. German clubs began as members’ organisations and the 50+1 rule was a way of allowing controlled commercialisation, not a mechanism to roll back rampant commercialisation of the sort exhibited 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 of value, not to mention control to supporters.
But supporter ownership on a material scale remains the best way to formalise and cement the relationship between fans and owners. Recent discussions between the Manchester United Supporters Trust (Must) and the Glazers about a fan share scheme show the beginnings of a way forward. Any move to an element of supporter ownership will inevitably be gradual and frustratingly slow, but having supporter shareholders, especially organised by a properly constituted supporters trust, is good for the majority owner. The board of any company should welcome passionate, long-term, loyal customers on to its share register, and a wise owner, wishing to cement their relationship with the United fanbase, would work with Must to give supporters an opportunity 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 Chelsea takeover by a consortium led by Todd Boehly has a significant debt element, including a £500m term loan and a £300m revolving credit facility. Debt will almost inevitably be part of any purchase of United, or at least part of future investment plans for Old Trafford, but the lessons of the last 17 years are that excessive leverage, taken for the wrong reasons, can prove a deadweight, preventing investment and providing no benefit to the club.
Any new owners at United need to work to understand the true nature of what they have bought into, and recognise the transient nature of their connection to what is an institution of cultural importance. We need owners who see supporters as partners not problems, and who give them an opportunity to have a stake in the club. And after a billion pounds has flowed out of United solely for the privilege of servicing the Glazers’ debt, we need owners who show financial prudence, and only borrow to invest back into the club. That’s not too much to ask.
Andy Green is a Manchester United supporter and writer on football finance.