Who will benefit from Manchester United share sales?

Ben Chu

Untitled 154 Who will benefit from Manchester United share sales?How should those who care about democracy in football respond to the Glazer family’s plans to float a tranche of Manchester United on the Singapore stock market?

The Manchester United Supporters Trust, of which I am a member, is guardedly optimistic, seeing this as a chance for ordinary fans to buy shares in their club, and possibly the beginning of the end of the Glazer regime.

I’m not convinced.

The fact that the float is taking place in Singapore means it will be difficult for UK fans to buy shares. And since the Glazers apparently only want to sell up to 30 per cent, they would retain control of the club after the float.

We don’t know what would happen to the funds from the share sales. But few expect the Glazer family to use the cash to pay off the £500m gross debt that they have brought to the club as a result of their 2005 leveraged buyout.

I also feel queasy about my club, indeed any football club, becoming a publicly quoted company in which shares are actively traded. Football is not a normal business. First, its “customers”, also known as fans, have no choice but to buy the product. Second, a club’s earnings, even one as successful as Manchester United, are highly fragile. A bad season on the pitch can be utterly disastrous for the bottom line. And stock market shareholders are not renowned for taking a long view of their ownership of  a business. Moreover, a floated club is always vulnerable to being snapped up by a predator like the Glazer family in a hostile takeover.

The proper owners of a club like United, indeed any club, are not pension funds or speculators. They are not families like the Glazers who want to make money. Nor are they even profligate sugar daddies like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, or Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City. The proper owners of a club – those who will take the ultimate long view – are its fans. This is not a utopian fantasy. I am writing this from Germany, where clubs by law must be controlled by members and cannot be taken over by a single individual (see page 7).

If this United share offering turns out to be step towards the final destination of fan ownership, all to the good.  But if the final destination is United becoming, once again, a PLC, be in no doubt: there will be nothing to cheer.

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