“It’s a write-off.”
“A write-off of what?”
“Jerry, all those big companies, they’re writing everything off.”
“You don’t even know what a write-off is.”
When the Glazer family’s business affairs are mentioned, especially the strange nitrous oxide-fueled takeover of Manchester United, it’s hard not to think of Jerry and Kramer in Seinfeld discussing the insurance industry.
You can say the words “leveraged buyout” as many times as you want. You can describe what it is. You can unravel the mechanics – purchasing an object by borrowing at that object’s value before owning that object – and still have absolutely no idea how this can be a thing, what it is like for people to point to it and say yes, that’s totally fine.
There was a similar head-spin over the Manchester United stock sale this week, the sense of a brilliantly closed circle in action. Here’s how it went. In August, the Glazers decided that Manchester United should sign Cristiano Ronaldo, a star player who the team doesn’t really need, but a massive boost to the brand, all paid for out of Manchester United’s revenue.
Because of that star power, the stock price jumped to its highest point since 2018. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a good man at the company, could be trusted to say the right historical things. A month later, the Glazers sold their personal shares, making a big profit on an investment they had made while wearing Manchester United’s clothes. It’s really brilliant. There is no risk here, only reward. They just write it off. Everyone writes it off.
There are several ways to describe the shady practice of influencing a company’s stock price for personal gain, things like “pump and dump”. That is emphatically not the case here. It’s all overboard and out in the open. Signing Ronaldo can even deliver a masterstroke on the pitch, that’s his genius. For now, it is also the best form of market management. Free for those who can afford it. Very, very expensive for those who can’t. But it is also legitimate to ask: what kind of football club is this exactly? In the past, phrases like “it’s a business now” or “it’s all Hollywood” have felt like invigorating platitudes. Somehow the game itself, the part that takes place on the field, was strong enough to resist. But there’s a kind of creep to this stuff, a feeling of slack.
The other thing that happened at Manchester United this week also had to do with Ronaldo. The big story after the draw with Everton was that Alex Ferguson was caught on camera discussing Solskjær’s failure to select Ronaldo with a retired cage fighter. Fans of the club will rightly object that this is fluff, an absurdly exaggerated media story.
But that’s the whole point! This very weird scene is a perfect paradigm of a sports institution that, lucratively, was stuck in the past. Here we have the ex-manager who still shouldn’t be influencing, sharing his thoughts on a club legend who isn’t really needed, as deployed by an ex-player who shouldn’t be the manager. The whole thing is gold, a bonus trip to the 1990s Manchester United wax museum.
It makes perfect sense that we ended up here. The Glazer method has always been to sweat the heritage, to make the past pay for the present.
This was mainly about growing the commercial branch, and skillfully.
That £1bn principal taken out of the club will likely need to be adjusted to reflect the revenue brought in by the things they are so good at – vinyl flooring partners, e-scooter links – and which are still an asset. will be when they sell.
But there’s a sense of contagion here now, of Glazer ball and brand obsession sneaking into the hard sporting details. Does anyone really believe that Solskjær runs one of the world’s most powerful clubs on merit? Or that his progress is judged by conventional fan-centric stats? This is a new version of the manager. Welcome to the manager as a sort of famous maître d’, heritage official, conductor of the Manchester United open top bus tour. This is not really a criticism, but more of an observation. It’s working. Look at that gain from selling stocks. Look at the crowds, the interest, the added aura of that CR7 bubble.
This is not a club that is stuck in the past against its will. This isn’t Liverpool in the late 1980s, a haunted club. It’s the slickest short-term business model, mastering a powerful brand in a chaotic world. All the details may not focus on those fine points of cups, pots and team building. Anyway, look at the bottom line.
It’s true that quirks will creep in. As Everton swept through the center of United’s midfield last Saturday, you could see Ronaldo turning to Fred and smashing one hand into the other, signaling that he wasn’t strong enough. None of this is Ronaldo’s fault. He knows better than anyone what a team looks like. The central midfielders he is used to playing include Roy Keane, Xabi Alonso, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Miralem Pjanic.
Fred is not this. If we’re dealing with pure sport here, he should already have been upgraded by now with the allocated resources to pre-draw the entrenched club legend. Perhaps this is some sort of dramatic irony.
For now the whole undeniable spectacle will continue, still in so many ways a gloriously fun, great football team with sharp teeth. United have four of the top five highest paid players in the league, a testament to an abiding commitment to making this work. It’s not a write-off yet. Theater and sports are not necessarily incompatible. But it’s a delicate balance.
Which way is this going?