My obit of Malcolm Glazer, owner of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL and Manchester United of the EPL, is in today’s Guardian. It’s a joint effort with Gavin McOwan, with his handling the relationship with United and my approaching it from the US and business side. You can link to it here.
What’s interesting, in the use of leveraged buyout in English football, is the fact that the NFL, even 20 years ago when Glazer bought the Bucs, would not allow such tactics to be used. The price was ‘only’ $192 million (a record, as I said, at the time) and the Glazers tried to raise just under a third of it with the sale of Houlihans from one company they owned to another. But Houlihans stock holders would not stand for that.
United’s stockholders had no such ability, or indeed desire, to halt Glazer. His purchases of shares were driving the price up, which of course provided him with his safety net should he not wind up buying the team: his profits would pay off his lenders.
One thing cut from the piece was my original lede, which referred to ‘knee-jerk’ anti-Americanism in the response of United fans. Like London itself, English football has been purchased, bit by bit, by foreigners, starting with Fayed, moving through debt-ridden Icelanders and Norwegians, and including all sorts of other super-rich entrepreneurs. But like complaints about Americans calling football by the English term, ‘soccer’, the Glazers, and to be fair their methods, hit a nerve.
But in reality the fans basked in success, and went along at MUFC with the same kind of rip-offs that exist across football: the rising prices of tickets, the team shirt scams, whatever, because that’s what fans do, and the Glazers were smart renough to keep Alec Ferguson, the greatest manager of his generation, in place and get another five titles. As Gavin notes, with lack of such success last year, the axe fell on David Moyes immediately, and if there is no return to Ferguson-like prowress, the Glazers will start to feel the heat.
But that, of course, is nothing to do really with debt service. In fact, English clubs have always been owned by men who made profit off the backs of the fans, and pace Gary Imlach, in the old days off the backs of the players as well, and kept it for themselves. There are now those who will spend without thought for profit, turning the EPL into their own fantasy league, but the fans don’t mind that. There are those who do things like try to change a team’s name or colours, and with justification the fans hate that.
I do not admire the leveraged buyout, nor its use in football. But the Glazers simply used a more advanced version of what football’s owners have done since clubs turned into businesses with owners. Fans like to pretend they are not, but that’s what they are. They are often just owned badly, which is why English clubs go bankrupt, and why EPL teams were such an undervalued asset in the first place. It has always been a different game for those in the boxes and those in the terraces, and all-seater stadia haven’t changed that.
As I said on the World Service last night, Malcolm Glazer’s legacy here will be that leveraged buyout. I should have added it ought to be the lifting of the curtain covering the distance between the business of football and its fans.