Man United family owners firmly in control

By Ben Chu

A share in one of the world's most storied football clubs is once again up for grabs. The Glazer family's flotation of 10 per cent of Manchester United on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday marks the end of a long and bumpy road.

The family, which took the club private in a £790 million ($1524 million) leveraged buyout in 2005, explored a float in Singapore and Hong Kong last year, but were forced to retreat in the face of weak demand. And the New York share issue had to be delayed because of market volatility last month. At one stage, it looked like the whole deal might be shelved.

But now the sale is finally away. So what does it mean for investors, for fans and football itself? Commentators have tended to analyse the float either from the perspective of the shareholder or the supporter. And neither is a pretty picture. The Glazers have pushed through an aggressive valuation for the shares.

The US$18-$20 price ($22-$25) puts a value on the entire club at around US$3 billion, around 26 times the club's annual earnings. Analysts have pointed out that an established media company such as Disney is only valued at just 10 times earnings.

Although the Glazers will probably offload the shares at their demanded price, attention will quickly turn to the level at which they trade in the market.

Facebook shares are down by almost 50 per cent since the social networking site's much-hyped float earlier this year, leaving early investors feeling conned.

Some have suggested the only financial logic for buying the shares is that the club could be targeted by a wealthy private investor who will have to buy out all the equity holders at a premium to secure the prize.

If the Glazers' promises of capital gain do not materialise in the coming years, new shareholders will not have an opportunity to influence the running of the club. The brothers have put in place a two-class voting structure which means the family retain almost total control through B shares that have 10 times the voting power of those that are publicly traded. Manchester United shareholders will buy risk without control.

It is one thing for someone like Rupert Murdoch, who built his News Corp business from almost nothing, to treat shareholders as second-class corporate citizens. But the Glazers did not found Manchester United. They used money borrowed from bankers and hedge funds to acquire the club when it was already one of the most successful sporting institutions in the world.

But what stinks even more is the fact that a sporting institution - one of Britain's most treasured community assets - is being relentlessly milked for the private profit of a single family.

The Glazers had initially suggested that the new money raised from this float would be used to pay down debt that the family heaped on the club after the 2005 buyout. At the last count, this stood at £437 million, a bigger debt burden than any other in English football. But it has since emerged that half the proceeds from the share sales will go into the Glazers' personal pockets.

- Independent

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