Manchester United FC’s owners are considering opening up the iconic English football club to a new investor — with private equity firms likely to be crowding the field alongside high-net worth individuals.
Bloomberg News reported that the Glazer family may sell a minority stake in the English Premier League team. It’s the first sign the Americans are willing to cede some control at the club they have owned outright since 2005.
Buyout firm Apollo Global Management Inc. has already expressed interest, according to a person familiar the matter, asking not to be identified discussing confidential information. U.K. businessman Jim Ratcliffe is another early name in the mix, while Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk also joked about a deal.
Sports businesses have proved themselves resilient in challenging economic times and investors see Manchester United as an underappreciated asset, said Doug Harmer, partner at boutique Oakwell Sports Advisory. “With Manchester United, they see that it has been underinvested and that it’s a bit of a fallen giant,” he said.
A representative for Manchester United declined to comment, while a spokesperson for Apollo couldn’t immediately provide comment. Apollo’s interest in Manchester United was first reported by the Daily Mail.
There’s unlikely to be a shortage of interested parties, with American investors in particular having shown themselves hungry for a slice of the world’s favorite sport. When Manchester United’s EPL rival Chelsea FC was put up for sale by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich earlier this year, it received 250 expressions of interest.
Among those linked to the more credible Chelsea bid groups were alternative investment executives and firms including Citadel founder Ken Griffin, Bain Capital co-chairman Stephen Pagliuca, Apollo co-founder Josh Harris and Oaktree Capital. In the end, Chelsea was sold to U.S. billionaire Todd Boehly and California-based buyout house Clearlake Capital for £4.25 billion ($5.1 billion). Manchester United could be valued at closer to £5 billion.
Private equity has increasingly been venturing into European football, drawn by the high growth potential and lower valuations relative to sports franchises back in the U.S. A jewel in the crown is broadcast rights, which in England outstrip every other major football league in Europe. EPL revenue is expected to exceed £6 billion for the first time, according to a report from Deloitte, driven by media rights.
“Private equity investors are looking at the differential in traded multiples from American sports franchises and those in the UK,” said Harmer. “They look at the Premier League and how well they have done with their international rights.”
Private equity investors are already present in the EPL, with RedBird Capital Partners invested in Liverpool FC, Silver Lake owing a stake in Manchester City and Peak6 Investments backing Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.
Manchester United’s commercial reach and potential is massive among the EPL’s top teams. It’s one of the best-supported clubs globally thanks to its dominance of English football in the 1990s and 2000s under legendary coach Sir Alex Ferguson, who delivered a record 13 EPL titles.
It was during this run in 2005 that the late Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United in a leveraged buyout that saddled it with massive debts. The Glazer family faced distrust from hardcore supporters from the start and, while this was mitigated in the early years of their ownership as the team continued to win trophies, resentment grew after Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Since then, the club has cycled through managers and spent heavily on star players with only a handful of trophies to show for it.
A lack of investment in Manchester United’s infrastructure, including its training ground and famous Old Trafford stadium, and anger over the Glazers’ backing of a doomed breakaway Super League in Europe last year have compounded the ill will.
While it’s unclear how much influence a new backer would yield at Manchester United, where the Glazers own nearly 97 percent of voting stock, a private equity firm would be keen to ensure the business was being run in a way to maximize gains for its own investors. Changes to the day-to-day running of the club, and reinvestment in key infrastructure, may be high on the agenda.
“Minority investors can push for certain powers, such as the ability to sign off on major expenditure and boardroom seats,” said Adam Sommerfeld at sports advisory firm Certus Capital Partners. “Football’s a very fluid game so these investors can often develop strong dissenting voices when the team’s not doing too well on the pitch.”