United Fans Boiling Over
Is football business or a game? Manchester United fans have been simmering for a while and yesterday they boiled over. The press will focus on the dangerous, idiotic behaviour of a handful. But beneath that, it’s worth noting that thousands of peaceful fans turned out to protest. In recent years tens of thousands have protested.
They are protesting at the ownership of the club by the Florida-based Glazer family. Their unrest is at the massive amounts of debt injected into the club balance sheet and the cash siphoned out to the Glazers. I’m already stumbling over words. I instinctively typed ‘club’. But it’s no longer a club. It’s been a business for a long time, and even more so in the sixteen years the Glazer family have owned Manchester United.
The club was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012, with over $230 million being raised as 10% of the club was sold to other investors. But the Glazers still have cast-iron control of the club through the weight of their shareholding and their class of shares having ten times more voting power, as well as them being recipients of dividends. The club currently has £455 million of debt.
The fans have long been disillusioned by the amount of cash leaving the club to service this huge debt pile or going to the Glazer family trust. They point to the poor condition of the stadium and facilities, in comparison to the modern stadiums of clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and planned stadiums such as the new Everton facility.
My First United Game
I don’t remember if I saw United play Preston North End, my local team, in March 1966 in the FA Cup. I do remember watching Preston beat Cardiff 9-0 at Deepdale in early May that year. It was 5-0 by halftime. I wondered if all the games would be this exciting and whether the Invincibles would sweep all before them. The next fifty or so years put paid to that notion. But that year I was hooked on United and two years later I was beside myself with excitement as the Reds beat Benfica 4-1 with three extra-time goals, to take the European Cup.
In 1972 I vividly remember being at a packed Deepdale watching another FA Cup tie. A tight game, but United won with two goals in the last five minutes.
The etiquette was tricky, as I was ecstatic to see the Reds win, although conscious I was wedged sardine-like into the Paddock area with thousands of Prestonians.
United brought international pedigree and a host of world stars into a 14-year-old’s life and I wandered home wide-eyed. I was hooked from that day. Through good years and bad years, the club has been a part of my life. I’m not fanatical, but they are part of me.
The photo on the left shows part of the 37,000 in attendance that day. The crowd slightly larger than that for the 1966 tie with United, and still a record to this day.
A Business Or A Game?
I’m a businessman. I can see why the football business is good business for the Glazer family. Not only does it provide an ongoing dividend to the family trust, but there is also a huge capital gain accruing. The global following is huge, and that awareness underpins the inflow of lucrative sponsorship deals as brands seek to access the global United fan. Add to that television rights and merchandise sales. The latter is substantial, as can be seen by the takings not only on game day but during the week and streams of Chinese tourists visit Old Trafford.
Malcolm Glazer took a lot of risk in the early days, using some very high coupon debt to get the acquisition done. In the business world, he took the risk and created wealth for himself and his family. The football business is a great business for them.
As well as television and merchandise sales, there’s the stadium revenue from match days. From the pockets of the people who still see it as a game. Where following their beloved club is a central part of their lives and the local culture. There’s that word ‘club’ once more. The mighty Manchester United Football Club descended from Newton Heath LYR Football Club by the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath. It was founded in 1878. The Glazer family have overlooked the deep roots that English football clubs have in our society. Overlooked the deep passion that the average fan has for their club. Their club.
The Final Straw
The announcement of the proposed Super League recently tweaked the temperature up to a boiling point. British fans saw this as a craven money grab by already impossibly wealthy owners. Protests have taken place at several clubs. The apologies were superficial, including that made by Joel Glazer to the United fans. He stated that European football needs to become sustainable but accepts that this was poorly conceived. A league for the super-rich clubs would further undermine the roots of the English game and further enriched the owners.
Yesterday’s events saw the most dramatic protest to date. We can’t ignore the handful of thugs who did criminal damage. But it would be foolish to ignore the wider sentiment expressed. Is football a business or a game? It depends on whether you have been tied to your club for most of your life. I know several people who have had season tickets handed down through the family to them. It’s an integral part of their life. Can a wealthy owner with a business-first approach fully empathise with that? I doubt it.
Perhaps there will be a movement towards the concept of having supporters on the supervisory board of clubs. Maybe there won’t be. It feels, however, that we may have reached a critical point in the tense relationship between the wealthy owners and the fans.