Tuesday, May 17, 2005 ESPNsoccernet: May 29, 2:24 AM UK
Malcolm in the middle
You go searching for the exact parallel, and it just isn't to be found. A billionaire from the Ukraine buying the Green Bay Packers? That's sort of getting there. A Luxemborg richie taking over the Yankees, maybe. Some serial shark like Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch gnoshing on an American tradition like, oh, I don't know, the Dodgers.
Wait: Bad example.
Malcolm in the Middle
Outside the Lines examines Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United, world's most popular soccer team, and the discord his ownership has caused throughout England.
Or, upon further review, the right one. It was in 1998, in fact, that Manchester United's Shareholders United was initially cobbled together -- as Shareholders United Against Murdoch.
That was then, when Murdoch was said to be making a move to take control of the publicly held Man U stock. In the here and now, Shareholders United has a new enemy with which to contend, and an American one at that.
Monday's announcement that Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had succeeded in raising his stock ownership of Man U to more than 75 percent has set off the kind of epic combination of panic and rising anger seldom seen even in the vitriolic and emotion-driven universe of European soccer. This one isn't just business -- although it is that -- it's personal.If you were consciously trying to pick the exact wrong guy to come to the fore of an audacious move like this, Glazer would be that guy. He is a West Palm Beach, Fla., resident taking controlling interest in one of the most successful and uniquely local franchises in the history of sport. He has virtually no demonstrated knowledge of English football (that's soccer to those of us in Mini-Van Nation) nor any particular stated interest in it.Moreover, he is clearly going after Man U for the money -- and he'll leverage himself to the gills to get it. Glazer's own plan for the $1.47 billion -- said "billion" -- takeover is to borrow $490 million and raise another $509 billion by issuing preferred securities to large investors.
"At some point, somebody's gonna need to get paid," said J.D. Deitch, the U.S. representative for Shareholders United, a group fronting the interests of the minority shareholders in Man U. "What we can't figure out right now is how the heck he's going to do it."
The common fan's fear? That Glazer will do so in large part on the backs of United's supporters -- raising ticket prices, trying to peel off Manchester's television deal all to itself and away from the rest of the Premier League, that sort of thing.
But on another level entirely is the question of the debt load in particular and Glazer's finances in general. One of the significant things about the 75 percent ownership threshold is that Glazer now is free to place his personal debt on Man U's books -- and to take the club's stock private, which he plans to do. At 90 percent stock ownership, which he's clearly aiming for now, Glazer could compel the remaining shareholders to sell to him under the rules of the London Stock Exchange.
That's a lot of stock -- and a boatload of debt. And if you're a lifelong United fan? Well, the concern there is a basic one: Your team may become so freighted with financial baggage that it's no longer able to compete with the Arsenals and the Chelseas of the soccer world.
Forget Glazer. This is about football.
Thus, Shareholders United's roots-oriented attempt to boycott any Glazer-spun version of the club or its products and advertisers, and the planned protest outside the FA Cup final between Man U and Arsenal on Saturday in Wales being led by the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, among others.
"There's nothing personal about it," Deitch says of Shareholders United's vehement opposition to Glazer's control. In other words, this isn't about Glazer being from Florida, per se. The English Premier League is rife with foreign ownership and more or less used to that aspect of its existence.
No, the problem with Glazer is that, at first blush, he doesn't appear even slightly interested in the actual, you know ... sport.
Understand: Man U is held in a sort of reverence as the most local sort of international phenomenon. There is an element of protectiveness around it that sounds a bit like how NFL fans feel about the Packers, a team still basically owned by its followers and those in the Green Bay community who purchased the stock over the years.
Of course, the Packers' stock structure includes provisions that would ever prevent a Malcom Glazer-type takeover. Man U doesn't have that. What it has is its connection with its team -- and that is one powerful, difficult-to-describe connection.
Glazer's takeover may or may not be the ruination of Manchester United, a club that, unlike the Bucs, was a championship-level success on the field and in the boardroom long before Malcolm came along. But what it does accomplish is to formally strip the local sheen from the franchise.The club's heart may belong to Manchester, but its bags and baggage are going over to the guy with all the debt. It's clear that Glazer is betting on United's fans to love the team so much they're willing to forgive everything else. Deitch, of Shareholders United, isn't so sure."The poison pill of this deal will be the fans," Deitch said. Strong words, at a time when the fella from West Palm Beach is holding most of the cards.Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.