More than five months after Manchester United’s US owners said they would consider selling the English football club, the future of one of the biggest names in sport remains in doubt.
Following three rounds of bidding orchestrated by US bank Raine Group, two suitors are now waiting for a verdict from the Glazer family on whether they will press ahead with a full or partial sale of the club, raise capital from elsewhere, or perhaps do nothing at all.
The drawn-out process has been conducted behind a cloak of non-disclosure agreements, robbing the two bidders — British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Qatari Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani — of their chance to conduct a public-relations campaign. who control around 95 per cent of Manchester United’s voting rights, have owned the club since 2005.
Early expectations that a sale would set a new record for a sports team are in question, particularly since the $6bn bid for the Washington Commanders NFL franchise by a consortium led by Apollo co-founder Josh Harris last month.
Several top football clubs have explored new investment or outright sales since US investors Clearlake Capital and Todd Boehly acquired London club Chelsea FC for £2.5bn almost exactly a year ago.
Chelsea received more than 250 enquiries and 12 credible bids, before narrowing it to a final four who wanted to buy the club in its entirety.
The auction for Manchester United has not followed the same script, with interest being far more muted. Some point to the more challenging economics of a transaction with interest rates much higher than a year ago.
Raine, which also led the Chelsea sale, has replayed a strategy of setting deadlines for bidders, a common tactic in dealmaking designed to stir competitive tension.
“It’s a game really and Raine are just trying to push the auction,” said Duncan Drasdo, head of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. “That’s their job, to maximize the price, and they’re trying to play one bidder off the other .”
But with Chelsea, the owner — sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — was a forced seller, and the club was under intense pressure from the UK government to complete a deal. in the club.
By contrast, the pair of bidders vying for Manchester United will have to convince the Glazers to sell. The club’s New York-listed shares give the business an equity value of around $3.1bn, plus around $800mn in debt.
“The price tag will have filtered the list naturally,” said a longtime associate of the Glazers. “The beast you’re taking on, if you think of the history of United, it’s something extraordinary.”
The Glazers have two offers on the table. Sheikh Jassim, son of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, a former prime minister and ex-head of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, has bid for 100 per cent of Manchester United via an entity called the Nine Two Foundation.
The foundation, which does not have a website, is the entity Sheikh Jassim is using to make the bid.
A person close to Sheikh Jassim said his third-round bid valued the club in the region of £5bn ($6.2bn), without giving any more detail. The Financial Times reported in March that Ratcliffe was planning a bid that valued Manchester United at more than £5bn, including the club’s existing debt.
Founder of chemicals conglomerate Ineos, Ratcliffe has been a United fan since childhood, although he made a last-ditch attempt to buy Chelsea last year.
The Glazer family could still shun both offers and raise cash to strengthen the club’s balance sheet, reduce debt and invest in United’s stadium. They have received several proposals to help them do so from US investment firms, including Carlyle Group and Elliott Management.
Such an outcome would probably prove unpopular with fans, who have been protesting at the Glazers’ ownership since the start of their now 18-year tenure.
Fresh from Qatar hosting the World Cup, the initial expectation was that any bidder from the Gulf state would be better resourced and in pole position. However, people close to Sheikh Jassim’s bid have stressed that he and his Nine Two Foundation are bidding privately, without state financing.
Having begun the process as the underdog, Ratcliffe has given himself a shot at pulling off the deal thanks to his valuation of the club, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Both Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe publicly announced their opening bids, promising to return the club, which has not won the Premier League in a decade, to its former glories. But the public statements earned them a rebuke from Raine.
In March, Manchester United held a series of meetings with suitors at its Old Trafford stadium and Carrington training ground. Sheikh Jassim did not join the meetings, instead dispatching advisers including dealmakers from Bank of America. Ratcliffe attended in person the following day.
When the second deadline arrived later that month, Raine granted both bidders an extension. For the third round, which concluded on April 28, bidders were required to submit far more detailed proposals, according to those involved, including funding arrangements.
That potentially paves the way for a swift deal if the Glazers opt to end their controversial tenure as owners.
Additional reporting by Josh Noble