Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Glazers: A tale of regular venture capitalist folk

After all the protests, campaigns and prophecies of doom, Manchester United supporters yesterday caught their first glimpse of the new evil empire- and saw Joel Glazer attempt to redraw the appalling vista which they for so long feared since his father’s bid to take over the club became public, into a rosier landscape.

Appearing on MUTV in an interview which would have made Pravda blush, Glazer attempted to allay seemingly all of the concerns and fears which had been held by the United supporters organisations as to the plans of his family, led by his father Malcolm, for the club.

While it has long been known that Joel Glazer would be the public face of the Glazer family in the running of the new Old Trafford regime, it was still a wise public relations move to present a different face as the personification of the Glazer junta. Malcolm Glazer, in part through his reclusiveness, in part through his silence since his intentions became known, has become demonised to the level of caricature by those opposed to him, to the extent that he has almost become a pantomime villain, a corporate bogeyman to frighten the kids with.

In the absence of fine detail until now from the Glazer family, the real crux of the objections to them has come from one question: how are they going to repay the staggering debt undertaken to fund the takeover?

It is a question the answer for which is no more clear than before Joel Glazer spoke yesterday.

1. Ticket Prices

On the allegation that the price of entry into Old Trafford would be raised astronomically, thereby alienating the traditional supporter Glazer was dismissive in the extreme: “This club’s ticket prices will always be competitive with other prices in the Premier League….[when you outprice supporters] you lose the lifeblood of the club”.

A little wriggle room here: the London clubs’ ticket prices tend to be higher than any provincial club, and at the very least steady price rises are inevitable, but the romantic tones of Glazer’s language were intended to quash the suspicion that they would be happy for Old Trafford’s seats to be filled any 67,000 bums, and whether those posteriors were from Salford or Singapore was irrelevant.

2. Sale and Leaseback of Old Trafford

An unequivocally “absolutely ridiculous” notion according to Glazer, despite many observers feeling that this was a formality given the cripplingly high interest on much of their borrowing, which it was felt would necessitate quick cash flow to alleviate some of the repayment burden.

3. Withdrawal from Premiership Collective Television Rights Bargaining

This is key concern for most football supporters in England outwith Manchester United. Would the new United regime, in attempting to maximise potential revenue cut loose from the Premiership’s traditional collective bargaining arrangement for television rights, which distributes the money received from Sky television more equitably than if the clubs negotiated individual rights, thereby meaning that the biggest and most popular clubs would receive vastly greater sums than smaller clubs?

Glazer toed the Premier League’s line on this issue to the letter. “[Sharing of money is] the foundation of a strong league. Without a strong league you don’t have a strong competition and we feel very strongly about that”.

4. Tradition/Identity/History

On all the intangible issues which arose fear in the supporters’ organisations Glazer was effusive. They are firmly behind Alex Ferguson, will back him financially to achieve success (Ferguson is reported to be “excited” about the new regime), think that David Gill is a great guy and have won over Bobby Charlton as well. Glazer repeatedly cast his family has “restorers” of the club, stated that the fans were the club’s true owners and that they (the Glazers) were in thrall to the passion of the supporters and the club’s heritage.

So what was all that fuss about? Of course the oft-repeated irony of the supporters anti-Glazer campaign, and its “Not for Sale” mantra, is that the club has simply moved from the hands of a number of varied capitalists, to a smaller number, namely the Glazer family. What did “not for sale” even mean? How was the ownership of the club to be defined?

As I have mentioned, the key concern of any savvy Manchester United supporter was not the fact that some big bad American monster was going to come and turn Old Trafford into a shopping mall, replacing the Stretford End with a Taco Bell and bringing you the Budweiser Munich Air Disaster Memorial. When one strips away the large tranches of xenophobia in the discussion, the question of how they are going to repay the debt is all that matters.

So if not by the methods denied by Glazer yesterday, then how? Glazer was vague on this, saying “our family has personally invested £270 million” and “debt means different things to different people”. The only fragment of insight about increasing United’s revenues came when Glazer said that “maybe there are some things we can do overseas to grow Manchester United which will benefit the community at large”.

The phrasing of this sentence suggests that they haven’t really thought much about it and that, well, they would run a few ideas up the flagpole and see what fluttered, but sure in the meantime we’ll plod along as we are! Nonsense of course. No financial institution would have loaned the sums the Glazer’s have borrowed, and the Glazer’s would not have taken out the debt, without concrete, detailed and (because of the degree that United’s revenues will have to increase to repay the debt) revolutionary plans.

So what is the “something we can do overseas”? Will United, while playing ball with the Premier League on collective bargaining domestically, go it alone internationally, and maximise their worldwide appeal by negotiating individually for international rights? It would make sense- after all there are sixty million people in the United Kingdom, six billion in the rest of the world.

But a product saleable worldwide surely will not benefit from the inclusion of the more prosaic outposts of English football. A trip to Wigan may not help much in easing the Glazers’ repayment schedule. The Glazers will be asking why Manchester United cannot play Real Madrid or Barcelona twice a season as standard, rather than if the serendipity of the Champions League draw permits it.

Will the “something overseas” be an attempt to restructure the game to ensure that Manchester United are part of a product whose global appeal will make the Sky domestic television contract look like a petty cash box?

Due to the Glazers’ reluctance to detail their plans, we must continue to speculate a little longer on how they will increase United’s revenues. Yesterday’s interview with Joel Glazer was a wet dishcloth on the chip-pan fire of supporters’ protests, and a belated charm offensive on the parts of the new owners. When the real action begins, it is difficult for one to conceive how the Glazers will make a success of their new venture without some fundamental manoeuvres which will go way beyond something as trivial as raising ticket prices.

Whether this will mean an attempt to create the fabled European Super League we do not yet know, but one imagines the committee rooms of the G14 clubs will be interesting places to be over the coming months.

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