In a surprising turn of events, UK billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of the petrochemical giant Ineos, is on the verge of finalising a deal to acquire a 25% stake in the renowned English soccer powerhouse, Manchester United. This development comes after Qatar's Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani abruptly withdrew from negotiations to take over the club.
The decision now rests with the United board, predominantly composed of the six Glazer siblings who acquired the club back in 2005. The board is expected to vote on accepting Ratcliffe's bid, which is estimated to be valued at approximately £1.3 billion ($1.58 billion). This significant investment would elevate the club's total valuation to an impressive £6.2 billion. Additionally, it has been reported that Ratcliffe will take full control of the club's sporting operations.
The Glazer family's decision to contemplate selling the club, which they purchased for £790 million in 2005, was announced in November. Over the years, they had faced criticism from United's passionate fanbase due to the club's underwhelming performance and perceived lack of investment.
Following the announcement of the potential sale, there was substantial interest from various parties, with both Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim emerging as frontrunners. Both had submitted bids in the vicinity of £5 billion for a complete takeover. However, negotiations hit a roadblock in recent months, largely due to the Glazers' reported demand for a total asking price of £6.4 billion. In response to the impasse, Sheikh Jassim decided to withdraw from the discussions, deeming the valuation unreasonably high. In contrast, Ratcliffe has proposed purchasing a minority stake in the club, at least initially, as a means to break the deadlock.
It's worth noting that Sheikh Jassim's bid would have constituted a full cash offer and would have cleared the club's existing debt, which stood at £969.6 million in the last assessment.
Ratcliffe and Manchester United's fanbase are both hopeful that this partial acquisition is just the initial step toward a complete takeover. During the previous round of bidding, reports suggested that Ratcliffe was willing to accept a 25% stake initially with the option to assume full control and a majority stake within three years.
The Glazer family's ownership of Manchester United has been a subject of mass protests since their acquisition in 2005. Their leveraged buyout strategy placed the debt from the purchase on the club's balance sheet, which has been a source of frustration for fans. Demonstrations against the Glazers have taken place inside and outside the club's home stadium, Old Trafford, in recent years. These protests are not solely due to the team's on-pitch struggles but also stem from the need for investment to upgrade Old Trafford and regain Premier League glory. The club's last Premier League title was secured in 2013.
Furthermore, the Glazers' involvement in the failed European Super League project in April 2021 further fuelled the discontent among fans. A Qatari takeover would have marked the end of the Glazers' tenure, but Ratcliffe's minority share has dashed hopes of a fresh start under new ownership.
In response to Sheikh Jassim's withdrawal, the Manchester Supporters Trust emphasised the club's urgent need for new investment and majority ownership, urging the Glazers to clarify their position.
Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis and consulting at GlobalData Sport, noted that the sale of a 25% stake in Manchester United signals the conclusion of a year-long saga surrounding the club's ownership. While the specifics of the acquisition remain somewhat unclear, it positions Ratcliffe and the Ineos sporting group on a path to potential complete ownership.
Ratcliffe would become the single largest shareholder in the club, with the Glazer family's ownership dispersed among the six siblings. While the commercial aspect of the club remains unrivalled, the decline in on-field performance has led to questions about the Glazer family's nearly two decades of ownership.
Although the acquisition of a minority stake falls short of the full sale and removal of the Glazers that many fans had hoped for, it may signify the beginning of the end of the ownership of one of soccer's most prestigious clubs by one of the most criticised ownership families. Given the debt imposed on the club during the Glazers' initial takeover, Manchester United has grappled with managing this debt and addressing the deteriorating condition of both the stadium and training ground.