Early bidders pitch competing visions for Manchester United

Three months after the Glazer family put Manchester United up for sale, two bidders have so far emerged with competing visions for one of the world’s most valuable sporting teams and a British cultural asset with huge global reach.

On Friday evening, the first bidder went public as Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of Qatar’s former prime minister, announced his intention to buy the club he claims to have supported since the age of 10.

Sheikh Jassim’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, is one of the tiny Gulf state’s richest men. Known to many as HBJ, he was the face of a Qatari investment spree in the UK that included Harrods department store and the Shard building, and was previously head of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Within hours, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire founder of UK chemicals group Ineos, confirmed he too had made an offer to buy the Glazers’ controlling stake in his boyhood club.

Raine, the investment bank running the sale process on behalf of the Glazers, has remained tight-lipped on whether there are other bidders in the running. The bank, which handled the record-breaking auctions for both Chelsea FC and Olympique Lyonnais last year, had set Friday as a soft deadline for those seeking to put forward investment proposals. It declined to comment on any bids.

Any interested parties looking for funding will have plenty of options. MSD Partners, Oaktree and Elliott Management have all expressed an interest in providing financing for potential suitors, according to people familiar with the matter.

The price is likely to surpass the $4.6bn spent on the Denver Broncos NFL franchise last year, the current record paid for a sports team. Since plans for a possible sale were announced in November, United’s New York-listed shares have doubled, giving the club an enterprise value of about $5bn. However, the Glazers have not committed to a full sale, leaving open the possibility of taking in minority investment.

While both Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe voiced their determination to win over supporters with their initial public pitches, both drew clear dividing lines related to the perceived shortcomings of the Glazers’ tenure.

Sheikh Jassim, chair of Qatar Islamic Bank, emphasised plans to bolster Manchester United’s balance sheet and ageing infrastructure. He promised a “debt free” purchase via his previously unknown Nine Two Foundation, “which will look to invest in the football teams, the training centre, the stadium and wider infrastructure”.

The Qatari bid is likely to have deep pockets, although the precise source of funding remains unclear. Those working on Sheikh Jassim’s bid insist no money is coming from QIA.

The Qatari state already owns French champions Paris Saint-Germain through Qatar Sports Investments. Uefa, football’s governing body in Europe, bars clubs owned by the same entity from competing against each other.

The Glazer family has been criticised by United fans for burdening the club with acquisition debt and extracting hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends since their leveraged buyout in 2005.

Meanwhile United’s infrastructure, including Old Trafford, its 74,000-seater stadium and the Carrington training ground are no longer the envy of the football world. In an open letter to potential investors in December, the Manchester United Supporters Trust said the club needed “urgent capital investment” in the stadium and training ground.

While also acknowledging the need for investment, Ratcliffe’s opening pitch hinged more on rebuilding fractured ties with the United fan base and halting the march of foreign ownership in English football. Just a handful of the Premier League’s 20 teams are British-owned.

In a statement released on Saturday, Ineos said: “We would see our role as the long-term custodians of Manchester United on behalf of the fans and the wider community.”

Ratcliffe’s company also nodded to the pending release of a UK government white paper — due this week — which will outline the scope of a new football regulator. The push for an independent body to oversee the game came after the attempt two years ago to launch a breakaway competition, the European Super League, which the Glazers were part of along with owners of five other Premier League teams.

“Football governance in this country is at a crossroads”, Ineos said. “We would want to help lead this next chapter, deepening the culture of English football by making the club a beacon for a modern, progressive, fan-centred approach to ownership.”

While Ratcliffe has hired JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs as advisers, he has not yet outlined how a bid would be financed. He will also have to address his own potential conflict as Ineos already owns French club Nice.

Ratcliffe may also have to shake off lingering doubts about his seriousness. He attempted to gatecrash the auction for Chelsea last year, launching a last-gasp offer for the London club once the formal process had already whittled down the bidders to a shortlist of two.

Then too he leaned heavily on the notion of a British bid during a sale process forced on the club after its Russian owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government.

However, within a month the club had been sold to a consortium led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital for £2.5bn, a record for a football club that is likely to be smashed if a full sale of Manchester United goes ahead.

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