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The Glazer paradox: Ownership and protest moving forward from the Super League

What do fans want moving forward? And perhaps most importantly, what do the Glazers ultimately want with the club?

Manchester United v Fulham - Premier League - Old Trafford Photo by Laurence Griffiths/PA Images via Getty Images

The Northwest of England, a sanctuary of football, is home to some of the country’s most dominant and distressed clubs. Among it lies the city of Manchester, the image of capitalist exploitation in the early 1800s and the inspiration for Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England a few decades later. We know what that led to.

Manchester was the envy of the world over 100 years later. Heady ‘Madchester’ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a beacon for nonconformity. However, its greatest football club, Manchester United, was also the greatest benefactor of the formation of the Premier League in 1992; a sporting competition that was the culmination of the rapid capitalization of England and English football in the post-Thatcher years.

All this history powered the fan protests at Old Trafford against the Glazer ownership of Manchester United on May 2nd, 2021, before the biggest game of the English football calendar against arch-rivals Liverpool; another club from the Northwest.

All the contradictions have got many an observer to question the premise for the protest and its futility amidst the backdrop of a game that is drifting away from its working-class beginnings.

The end of a summer transfer window has always been a great tryst for discourse on the ownership of Manchester United by the infamous Glazer family.

Former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan and Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp were quick to tell their viewers that Manchester United fans have nothing to complain about going into the 2021/22 season after spending over £100m on three of the world’s best footballers.

Do they have a point?

Football clubs aren’t profitable businesses, debts are normal but Manchester United aren’t

Football clubs aren’t businesses. Not yet. They’re definitely not run like them and the broadcast revenues allocated to Premier League sides in recent years have helped them make small profits but that’s about it.

The emergence of football clubs might’ve coincided with the business principle of limited liability but their purpose has never been profits and rapacious owners who have attempted to do the same have failed. Football’s always been about glory.

Stone-broke Real Madrid were willing to offer €200m to avail the services of Kylian Mbappe. Despite Mbappe’s coquettish advances and Josep Pedrelol’s best attempts to court the young king to the royal palace, the Emirs at Paris Saint-Germain rejected a sum that every other club would’ve accepted because football’s a win-maximization sport. Both clubs want to win and they want to win now.

Attempts were made earlier in the year with the European Super League to change that. The idea of the European Super League, which at one point looked very close to being a new reality, would’ve shifted the focus to profit-maximization as seen in other sports competitions like the NFL.

The ESL was not just a threat to the structure of European football, it could have larger ramifications on the 90 minutes that forge a game of football. We are not just talking about half-time shows here.

Dichotomies like legacy fan and fans of the future were made with the thoughts of fickle FIFA fans governing the decisions of the cohort that spearheaded the closed league. If the fans of the future had it their way, FIFA’s mystery ball game mode would no longer be a fever dream. It wouldn’t really be football then. Not as we’ve known it for over a century.

The proposition of this competition mobilized fans across England and led to the events on May 2nd, 2021.

But for Manchester United fans, this was only the tipping point of an event that was 16 years in the making. No Premier League game had ever been postponed due to fan protests before this.

And it hit the Glazers family where it hurts: not their pockets but the prestige of owning one of the world’s greatest sports clubs.

Prestige? We’ll get to this part later. Let’s deal with the pocket for now

The Pocket

Did their takeover in 2005 not come through loans that were secured against the club’s assets? Did it not put a club that had been debt-free for 75 years into debt?

It did.

This debt was £550 million when the takeover took place. This figure was down in the last couple of years – almost below £200m — before the pandemic changed things. The figure was £455.5 million when the protests took place.

Loan repayments have amounted to £244m and interest payments have amounted to £704m in the last 16 years. If that debt isn’t cleared soon…..oh boy! We’re talking 10 figures.

Isn’t this also the same family that regularly pays itself dividends from the club? The only club in the Premier League that practices this. This figure amounts to £125m since the takeover.

Does any club have to go through all of this?

The answer is no.

This thread from the Twitter account @SwissRamble goes into greater detail.

And have they not listed the club on the New York Stock Exchange and what about the increase in prices of matchday tickets when they came through the door? They’re obviously in it for the money.

Yes, all of this is true.

This family has put nothing into the club and they’ve taken a lot out of it. The club has paid for all of this. All this money could’ve been used to recruit better players, develop the leaky stadium, the academy, the Manchester United women’s team, the Manchester community, and more. The pocket is definitely important to them. The derision from fans is justified.

But there are other truths as well.

Football clubs are often in debt and insolvency is part of the deal for most clubs (just go through Simon Jordan’s Wikipedia page) but fans make certain that their clubs don’t die.

Glory Glory Manchester United have more fans than most. Manchester United aren’t going to die but the club could’ve missed out on glory in those early Glazer years. Only, they didn’t.

The club also happened to have one of the greatest managers of all time in those years. So what did the club do? They had one of the most glorious periods in their long history. The worst is sort of over?

Now, the former owners of the club United faced on May 2nd, 2021, Tom Hicks and George Gillet, faced death threats throughout their three years at Liverpool (2007-2010) and very nearly put the club into administration using a similar ownership model as the Glazers. They had to eventually put the club up for sale and Liverpool suffered during this period. United fans will look to this as an example of why they could’ve suffered the same fate and still can.

However, there was also an increase in commercial revenue after the Glazer era and the mega television deals meant the debt isn’t really worth fretting over.

Now, the increase in commercial revenue was probably just coincidental with the Glazers’ arrival. The Premier League was already on its way to tapping the Asian and North American markets in the early 2000s and the red club in Manchester has had songs sung in the Caribbean since 1957. A bunch of bouncy Busby Babes, they deserve to be knighted. Yup, you’ve heard that before. They’ve been a famous brand for a long time.

The club sells itself. It was called ‘Moneybags United’ in the early 1900s. It’s the only football club that can be considered a truly profitable business and this has been the case for many decades before the Glazers stepped in, which makes it unique.

The club was also floated on the stock exchange back in 1991. When Sir Alex Ferguson was hired by Martin Edwards in 1986, the news reporters still referred to Manchester United as the biggest football club in the country. In The Anatomy of Manchester United, Jonathan Wilson mentions how he found it odd as a kid when United were considered the biggest club in the country despite the league title drought and Liverpool’s overwhelmingly superior trophy cabinet at the time. The name alone has always carried tremendous weight.

The Glazers sensed an opportunity with this commercial behemoth in the 2000s but even the most profitable football club doesn’t turn anything close to the sort of profit an actual big business does. This is why it’s not just about the pockets with the Glazers.

The Prestige

These guys are billionaires, anyway. This is the tricky part when talking about the family putting the club on sale and new ownership. There’s no reason for them to leave.

Malcolm Glazer knew nothing about football (the other one) before acquiring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had three unsuccessful attempts at buying an NFL team before getting a hold of the Buccaneers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that he knew very little about the inspiration for this blog’s name before the leveraged buy-out of Manchester United.

Prestige is a big deal for these owners. It’s like owning a racehorse named after a monolithic limestone. Malcolm Glazer could’ve just stuck to the real estate business but the allure of owning one of the biggest sports teams in the world is enticing. Football clubs are like the one ring. They’re precious. They carry power and have a vicelike grip on these owners.

Manchester United’s noisy neighbours Manchester City — fueled by petrochemical wealth — aren’t participating in the world’s most popular sports league to make an extra buck. They’re in it for glory and prestige. The obvious contention is that Manchester City and Roman Abramovich’s vanity project in West London are also examples of sportswashing. Political and cultural legitimacy will then follow.

The Problem

These clubs are being run in a manner that makes winning far more likely and that’s United’s biggest problem since the great elder of Old Trafford left the building. The debt laid on the club is irredeemable as far as most fans are concerned. SwissRamble’s thread makes it clear that United aren’t the only club that’s minting from commercial revenue but none of this should come in the way of United being a football team that’s well-placed to win most of the competitions it participates in.

The club pays massive wages to its many superstars, which should be the biggest factor in the success of a football club but the club’s not been winning much for a while. That’s a problem for every fan.

Forward to this week and United have been one of the major protagonists of the most inconceivable transfer window in the history of the sport and there’s a real buzz about the place in most corners but it’s not got the bookmakers or the Fivethirtyeight’s prediction model to rate them any higher.

Before the signings, United were expected to finish 4th in the Premier League table and that hasn’t changed with the additions of three superstars in Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane, and Cristiano Ronaldo. They’re still expected to finish 4th with an 8% chance of winning the title as it stands. But that’s just the data.

When Sir Alex was working under the Glazers, United were quite dominant. However, without the Glazers they probably could’ve been walking the league like Juventus, PSG, and Bayern Munich have done for most of the last decade. The Glazers might have helped keep competition alive in the Ferguson years and United fans shouldn’t care for that but most would probably get ticked if Sir Alex was labelled a shepherd and the Premier League a farm. What might be good for United, isn’t always great for the game.

Let’s wrap this up.

The Paradox: Where does this lead and what are the challenges that lie ahead?

Glazer senior passed away in 2014 and the family’s reputation within the football community wasn’t great to begin with but it took a big hit cause of the events on May 2nd, 2021. The world was talking about this extremely private family. That’s not great for their legacy.

Do they sell? Sure. But to who? How will Saudi Arabia even sportswash a club that’s so popular around the globe? If anything, it’ll highlight the country’s human rights violations in mainstream media. That’s not good sportwashing but maybe what media outlets say doesn’t matter. Recent events suggest most United fans (legacy and future) can turn a blind eye to ethical and moral quandaries.

United would love a Matthew Benham at Brentford story but the odds of a life-long fan from Salford ever coughing up over $4 billion and running a football club coherently are lower than Brentford’s odds of winning the Premier League this season.

The 50+1 dream followed in Germany will require the participation of every club in the Premier League. Is that possible? Why would the likes of City and Chelsea ever consider that?

More on that here:

Joel Glazer’s recent statement on fan ownership seems quite insubstantial.

Andy Green, who writes the Andersred blog, has summed it up quite nicely here:

The plans for the ESL were in motion over a decade ago but the events that took place between April 18th, 2021, and the end of the recent transfer window have let the mask slip. The united opposition to the ESL edifice, ultimately leading to its demise, was definitely worth the euphoric celebrations. It was also a large target, which made it easier.

It’s unclear if fans know what they’re challenging with the ESL out of the way (for now) and if there’s much unity in the reforms suggested to really make this right. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo will placate things for most fans but there’s also been an increase in ticket prices for the game against Newcastle United after the international break. What do fans want?

The ownership of Manchester United is a prism that reflects the decadence of the sport but the sport’s never been a better watch.

This excerpt from Barney Ronay’s piece from 2019 for the Guardian seems fitting.

It’s all paradoxical.

Note: This piece has referred the work of Economics professor Stefan Szymanski, author of Soccernomics and Money and Soccer.