Manchester United supporters gave a guarded welcome to the club’s planned US share sale on Wednesday, warning the move could only be deemed a success if it helped to pay off the Red Devils’ massive debts.
United, the most successful club in English football history and reputedly the best supported club in the world, filed papers in the United States on Tuesday for an initial public share offering.
The papers gave a pro-forma amount of $100 million as the target for the share issue, but recent reports about abortive attempts to list it in Hong Kong or Singapore said the owners had aimed to bring in $1 billion.
The team, controlled since 2005 by the Glazer family – billionaire US sports investors – has struggled in recent years with debts from the takeover despite possessing arguably the world’s strongest global fan base.
United fans have long protested the Glazers’ heavily leveraged takeover, arguing the debts loaded onto the club have steadily eroded its ability to compete for top talent in an ever-spiralling transfer market.
United appeared to acknowledge the crippling impact of the club’s debt burden in the papers filed in New York.
“Our indebtedness could adversely affect our health and competitive position … reduce availability of our cash flow to fund the hiring and retention of players and coaching staff,” the papers noted.
“We intend to use all of our net proceeds from this offering to reduce our indebtedness.”
Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST), welcomed the plan to reduce the club’s debt, saying the wording of the filing vindicated the group’s long-held concerns.
“If it turns out that the vast majority of the proceeds are used to pay off the debt that is certainly something MUST would welcome and entirely vindicates our longstanding position that their debt was damaging our club,” Drasdo said.
“The destination of the funds shows the Glazers have finally conceded this as their filing includes health warnings.”
Tensions over United’s finances hit a peak in 2010, when the club’s liabilities topped $1.55 billion and fans rebelled at management, launching protests aimed at denying the club revenues.
But the debts have been slashed in the past two years, and profits have grown despite the team’s narrow loss of the Premier League title to cross-town rivals Manchester City this year.
The club’s name and fame underpin massive stored value that the owners hope will bring in strong support for the IPO.
The prospectus said that as of March 31, liabilities were down to 606 million pounds ($949 million) and debt was 423 billion pounds ($662 billion), and profits for the nine months to March 31 were 38 million pounds ($59 million), nearly triple a year earlier.
The listed company would be the newly-created Manchester United Ltd, established in April this year in the tax haven of Cayman Islands.
Manchester United is wholly controlled by Red Football LLC, a Glazer-led company registered in the US state of Delaware, which manages the team through British-incorporated Red Football Shareholder Ltd.
Before the offering goes ahead, Red Football Shareholder will be injected into the Cayman unit, and the business of the team “will be conducted through Manchester United Ltd. and its subsidiaries,” the prospectus said.
The listing is unlikely to water down the Glazers’ control. According to the prospectus, their Red Football LLC holds 100 per cent of class A shares and 100 per cent of class B shares in the Cayman unit to be listed.
In the offering, they will sell off some of the A shares while retaining the B shares, which have 10 times the voting rights of the A shares.
MUST chief Drasdo questioned whether the structuring of the sale would be attractive to investors.
“It appears the new A shares on offer will be inferior to the Glazers own B shares as they will carry only 1/10 of the voting rights,” he said.
“Furthermore the preliminary filing appears to indicate they will not be paying dividends either.
“A minority shareholding with inferior voting rights and no dividends is going to severely impact on the attraction to both financial and supporter investors.”