“It’s a depreciation.”
“A write-off of what?”
“Jerry, all these big companies, they write everything off.”
“You do not even know what a depreciation is.”
When the Glazer family’s business issues are mentioned, especially the weird, ridiculous gas-powered 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 “geared buyout” as often as you like. You can describe what it is. You can solve the mechanics – buying an object by borrowing against the value of the object before you own that object – and still have no idea how this is allowed to be a thing, how it is that people can point on it and say yes, that’s all right.
There was a similar head-spin on Manchester United stock sales this week, the feeling of a brilliant closed circle in action. That’s how it went down. In August, the Glaciers decided that Manchester United should sign Cristiano Ronaldo, a star player that the team does not exactly need, but a massive boost to the brand, and everyone paid out of Manchester United revenue.
Due to that star power, the stock price jumped to its highest point since 2018. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a good company man, could be trusted to say the correct legacy ball stuff. A month later, the Glazers sold their personal shares, yielding a large profit on an investment made while wearing Manchester United clothes. It’s really brilliant. There is no risk here, only reward. They just write it off. Everyone writes it off.
There are various ways to describe the grim practice of influencing a company’s stock price for its own gain, e.g. “Pump and dump”. That is emphatically not what is happening here. It’s all overboard and out in the open. Signing Ronaldo could even end up with an on-field master stroke, such is his brilliance. 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 not. But it is also legitimate to ask: what kind of football club is this really? In the past, phrases like “it’s a business now” or “the whole of Hollywood” have felt like preparing chatter. Somehow the game itself, the part that happens on the court, was strong enough to withstand. But there is a kind of creep to these things, a feeling of slackening.
The other thing that happened at Manchester United this week was also to do with Ronaldo. The big story after the draw with Everton was that Alex Ferguson had been caught on camera and discussed Solskjær’s lack of choice of Ronaldo with a retired burfighter. Fans of the club will rightly object that this is fluff, an absurdly exaggerated media story.
But that’s the whole point! This whole strange tableau is a perfect paradigm for a sports institution that was lucratively lost in the past. Here we have the former manager who should not still have influence and share his views on a club legend that is not really necessary, as inserted by a former player who should not be manager. It’s all gold, a bonus trip to the wax museum in Manchester United in the 1990s.
It is only logical that we should have ended up here. The Glazer method has always been to sweat the legacy, to make the past pay off in the present.
Mainly this has revolved around cultivating the commercial arm and it is expert.
The excess figure of £ 1bn. Taken out of the club will probably need to be adjusted to reflect revenue from the things they are so good at — vinyl flooring partners, e-scooter tie-ins — and which will still be an asset when they sell.
But there is now a sense of contagion here, of Glazer ball and brand obsession creeping into the tough sporting details. Does anyone really think that Solskjær leads one of the world’s most powerful clubs on profit? Or that his progress is judged on conventional fan-turned metrics? This is a new version of the manager. Welcome to the manager as a kind of celebrity maître d ‘, cultural heritage officer, conductor of the Manchester United open-top bus tour. This is not really a critique, more just an observation. It works. Check that profit on stock sales. Look at the crowds, the interest, the extra addition from the CR7 bubble.
This is not a club caught up in the past against its will. This is not Liverpool in the late 1980s, a club haunted by itself. It is the slimmest of short-term business models, mastering a strong brand in a chaotic world. Not all details may be aimed at the fine points of cups, pots and team building. But hey, check the bottom line.
It is true that the oddities will start to creep in. As Everton swept through the midfield of United midfield last Saturday, Ronaldo could be seen turning to Fred and slamming one hand into the other, indicating he was not strong enough. None of this is Ronaldo’s fault. He knows better than anyone what a team looks like. The key midfielders he is used to playing with include Roy Keane, Xabi Alonso, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Miralem Pjanic.
Peace is not this. He should, if we are dealing with pure sport here, have been upgraded by now using the assigned finds instead of signing the bolt-on club legend up front. Maybe this is some kind of dramatic irony.
For now, the whole undeniable spectacle rolls on, still in so many ways a wonderfully fun, magnificent, sharp-toothed football team. United have four of the five highest paid players in the league, proof of a sustained commitment to actually make this work. It is not a depreciation yet. Theater and sports are not necessarily incompatible. But it is a dangerous balance.
Which way will this tilt?