The World Cup in Qatar was in its third day when Manchester United’s press office announced that its American owners were exploring an end game they had long refused to even consider: a potential sale of the famed English soccer club.
Every day since that November morning, the swirl of speculation about who might buy United, one of the world’s most popular and most valuable sports teams, has gathered pace.
A British billionaire quickly confirmed that he planned to bid. An American hedge fund kicked the tires. Reports of a Saudi Arabian offer sent the club’s stock price surging.
But it was from Qatar, rumored for weeks to have investors interested in adding United to the country’s expanding sports portfolio, where details of the first official bid appeared. And just like that, the fight for the club’s future, a battle of differing visions for what kind of Manchester United would emerge from the auction, was on.
The official word of concrete Qatari interest arrived in a statement on Friday night: an all-cash offer — reportedly worth as much as $6 billion — by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, a little-known royal whose power may lie more in his post as the chairman of a major Qatari bank and in the influence of his father, a former prime minister who helped put their small nation on the international map.
Sheikh Jassim’s statement offered populism, or at least what sounded like a Gulf billionaire’s vision of it. Pledging to invest in United’s stadium and its teams without adding a dollar to its debts, his five-paragraph statement read like a box-ticking exercise in proposals designed to win the support of anyone eager to see the back of the Glazers, the family that has controlled the Premier League giant for nearly two decades.
But Sheikh Jassim’s suggestion of a “debt-free” takeover also did nothing to hide the financial muscle behind the offer that would make United, in an instant, the most high-profile Qatari-owned property on earth.
His public pitch took other bidders by surprise. Raine, the investment bank handling the sale for United’s board and the Glazer family, had asked prospective buyers to limit any public pronouncements, perhaps to entice as many offers as possible, or at the very least to avoid scaring off any suitors.
The Qatari offer changed that, and quickly led another bidder, Jim Ratcliffe, a British petrochemical billionaire based in Monte Carlo, to first privately and then publicly confirm that he had made an offer for 69 percent of United, the amount of the club owned by the Glazers.
Ratcliffe pointedly offered United fans an English alternative to the prospect of Gulf ownership. Manchester born and a lifelong United fan, Ratcliffe promised to put “the Manchester back into Manchester United,” to revive a club anchored not to foreign interests but to “its proud history and roots in the northwest of England.”
The competing offers immediately split the United fan base, with many overseas supporters openly pining on social media for a sale that they hoped would see Qatar’s deep pockets do for Manchester United what billions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates have done for its neighbor Manchester City. That sentiment did not appear to be shared by much of the club’s matchgoing supporters, with concerns raised by fan groups in England about everything from human rights to sporting integrity.
The latter may prove to be the more formidable obstacle, because Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe can expect to face scrutiny under rules set by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, that prohibit teams with the same owner from playing in top continental competitions like the Champions League.
Ratcliffe already owns OGC Nice, which plays in France’s top league and has drawn some of his fortune to finance its push toward European qualification.
Sheikh Jassim will face the challenge of convincing soccer regulators that his interests are different from those of the Qatari ownership group that runs the perennial Champions League contender Paris St.-Germain. Sheikh Jassim’s father was, with the country’s former emir, one of the architects of Qatar’s vision of itself as a player on the global stage, and one of the driving forces behind its flashy purchases of showcase assets like another British institution, the department store Harrods, and the Shard, Britain’s tallest building. The father’s close links to the country’s leadership already have raised doubts that his son’s pursuit of United is merely a private investment.
Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim may soon face other challenges, too. Friday’s deadline for bids was an artificial one, confected by United’s bankers to create urgency. Other bids may already exist, and new (and possibly higher) ones can still be presented.
But one thing all the bids — public, secret or still to come — may benefit from is near universal agreement among United fans of all stripes that the club should no longer be run by the famously unpopular Glazers. The family acquired the team in a highly contentious deal in 2005 in which it leveraged the majority of the purchase price against the club, meaning United has spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying for the right to be owned by the family.
That deal, while infuriating supporters, has been hugely profitable for the Glazers. Through fees and dividend payments, the family has already secured a return far higher than its initial direct investment (a fraction of the roughly $1.4 billion purchase price at the time). The club’s value has skyrocketed, with news media reports suggesting the family is now seeking as much as $7 billion to part with it.
That price point will narrow the pool of potential owners considerably. At least one potential buyer told The New York Times last week that anything close to that figure was “madness,” and said that his group had walked away because it believes that United, which still carries debt of nearly $600 million, is not worth more than 3 billion pounds, or $3.6 billion.
Yet in Raine, United’s owners have entrusted the job of soliciting offers to a bank with a recent track record of finding buyers willing to pay above-market prices. The firm, led by the New York banker Joe Ravitch, secured £2.5 billion (about $3 billion) last year in the sale for Chelsea. But that was more of a forced sale, one sparked by British government sanctions against Chelsea’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Glazers do not face similar pressure. Their call for bids for United was framed as merely an effort to “explore strategic alternatives for the club.”
That means whatever the billionaires offer, whatever they promise, wherever they call home, Manchester United will be sold only at a price the Glazers are willing to accept.