The excellent David Conn has written a peculiar article, and one that must have been difficult considering he is a lifelong Manchester City supporter, on how the Glazer family have more or less succeeded in their controversial leveraged buyout of the club in 2005. Through aggressive commercial sponsorship deals and by floating shares on the New York Stock Exchange with the holdings company based in the Cayman Islands, United have weathered the brief “spending hiatus” of the post-Ronaldo years.
Conn’s article finishes on a negative note, but ultimately cedes victory to the Glazer model:
So it was fitting that United reclaimed the title with Van Persie’s hat-trick. The Glazers have, in some watershed sense, come out the other side, owning Manchester United, their own personal asset now worth more than twice the £790m they paid for it with so much borrowed money.
On Tuesday night Bayern Munich and Barcelona play each other in the Champions League semi-final, two great clubs still in the traditional ownership of their supporters. England’s champions represent a dramatically different incarnation: football clubs as objects of financial speculation, and modern-day banking practices we would all feel better never having known about.
I’m not so certain these clubs are as “dramatically different” as Conn alleges. For one, it’s worth looking into the broader reasons why the Glazer model did not end in financial ruin for one England’s most storied football clubs. There were a number of factors involved.
First, United is one of the world’s most popular teams across all sports, and this was the case before the Glazers made their bid in 2005 (and before Sir Alex Ferguson took over as manager in 1986, for that matter). This built-in brand was enhanced by the success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure there and sustained by his success even after the so-called “lean years” following Ronaldo’s transfer to Real Madrid, and it required some very intelligent commercial marketing to properly exploit. Man United have been extraordinarily adept at making the most of their brand.
But United fans will know this means the club does well in spite of a financial model that makes beneficiaries of the actual class A shareholders, i.e. the Glazers. Even so, the lack of reinvestment hasn’t hindered their colossal success in the slightest.
Bayern Munich are in the same category, but for different reasons. They are historically the biggest club in German football, and have a commercial brand that, as of 2011, generated commercial revenues in excess of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Man United. Their total revenues in 2012 were €368 million. This is one of the reasons they’ve been able to amass a club with their relative depth.
Even so, critics have often pointed to Germany’s restrictive 50+1 rule as a possible limit to competitive freedom in Europe. The failure of German clubs to win the Champions League in the aughts for example was considered proof positive the league’s “socialistic” fan-friendly policy was holding German football back. Bayern’s comprehensive 4-0 defeat of Barcelona may change the line on that a little.
Except, as with United, Bayern are the exception, not the rule. Their commercial revenues largely raised on the back of the club’s built-in, immense global popularity are extraordinary, robust enough that the notion of courting an another deep-pocketed outside investor by quashing the 50+1 rule to underwrite expensive player transfers isn’t necessary. This is not to criticize 50+1, but simply to point out that Bayern should not be exemplified as an example of their relative effectiveness.
In fact, every European domestic league has only so many fans, and within that subgroup, each fan has to pick a club (or a bunch if you’re one of those people). Supporters tend to flock to a team that will win even after one or several relative lean years, either in transfers or in table performance. The reason they will win over and over again is because their commercial revenues, derived from their popularity, will always be more enduring than their rivals. It’s the perfect positive feedback loop.
For that reason, those clubs enjoy a global brand is so huge, so unassailable, that they live on a different financial plane when it comes to commercial revenue. United’s owners believed in the brand enough to risk a leveraged buyout and the subsequent few years worth of relatively lean transfer deals (they were rewarded too by SAF’s genius), and Bayern have clearly weathered a CL final/Bundesliga loss to emerge as one of the world’s best football clubs. Juventus are the only Serie A club to follow through on a major stadium renewal project (let’s go Stadio Friuli!), and have come roaring back following the Calciopoli scandal. Real Madrid and Barcelona are Real Madrid and Barcelona.
This world order is not unassailable. An unlikely Champions League win for Dortmund will add a small bump to their commercial sales. There might be an alternate universe in which Arsenal did everything “just so” to forever cement their Premier League dominance in 2003-04. Chelsea might eventually leverage their success last decade to make a challenge on a post-Sir Alex Ferguson United. AC Milan might once again challenge Juventus’ stranglehold on the Italian general fan base.
But it would be misguided to use Bayern as a model of 50+1′s success or United as a model for the Glazers’ reckless and risky leveraged buyout.