Bidders are getting a closer look at Manchester United as the potential sale of one of the biggest football clubs in the world gathers pace.
Representatives of Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani toured United’s famed Old Trafford stadium and Carrington training base on Thursday as part of a series of meetings with contenders bidding to buy out the current owner, the Glazer family.
The latest step in the process comes after indicative offers for the Premier League club were made last month via U.S. merchant bank Raine Group, which is handling what could be the biggest-ever sale of a sports team.
Sheikh Jassim, the chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank and son of a former Qatari prime minister, is aiming to take 100 per cent ownership of United.
He did not travel to Manchester for meetings with club executives but sent advisers, including Shahzad Shahbaz, the president of the Nine Two Foundation set up to complete the takeover.
Another bidder, INEOS owner Jim Ratcliffe, will tour United on Friday.
No other contenders have publicly declared their intention to buy United.
Ratcliffe has submitted a bid for majority ownership.
It is still not certain the Glazers will cede total control of the club the Americans have owned since 2005.
Much will depend on how high the bidding goes, with figures of up to $6 billion estimated.
That is about twice as much as Premier League rival Chelsea was sold for last year when it was bought by a consortium led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital.
Raine also handled that sale.
The Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, announced in November that they were open to selling United as they explored “strategic alternatives.” “It is a phenomenal asset with a tremendously loyal following all around the world,” said Christopher Zook, chairman and chief investment officer of CAZ Investments, which has extensive experience in sports investments.
“It is truly a worldwide brand. There are very few assets on the planet that carry that kind of recognition. So yes, buying that asset would be a fantastic thing to do at the right price.”
That price remains a source of debate, and the lack of public declarations of interest could reflect the limited number of viable candidates able to fund a takeover.
By comparison, a host of would-be buyers came forward for Chelsea, including Chicago Cubs owner the Ricketts family, Boston Celtics part-owner Steve Pagliuca and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. There were also British-based bids and rumoured interest from Saudi Arabia.
Chelsea eventually sold for just over $3 billion with a commitment to invest a further $2 billion.
Prospective new owners of United would likely need to invest extensively in the stadium, which could include a rebuild at an estimated cost of around $1 billion.
The tours held this week should give buyers a further indication of how high to pitch their next bids, which could be made within the next 10 days.
Sheikh Jassim has said he will look to “invest in the football teams, the training centre, the stadium and wider infrastructure.” His bid will also be debt free.
Ratcliffe said he would take a “fan-centred approach” to ownership, adding that he is “focusing on winning the Champions League.” The statements from both bidders will chime with United fans who have had to watch rivals Manchester City and Liverpool dominate English football in recent years.
Many supporters are also desperate to drive out the Glazers, who have been subject to numerous protests during their ownership.
Qatari-based ownership would offer the potential to rival the richest clubs in the world, such as Abu Dhabi-backed City and Paris Saint-Germain, which also has Qatari owners.
Billionaire Ratcliffe, meanwhile, is one of the richest people in Britain and a childhood United fan. Sheikh Jassim is also a longtime United fan.
Zook believes, even at a premium, United remains an attractive prospect.
“It’s a scarce asset. That’s one of the things, as an investor in professional sport, there’s not that many of them,” he said.
“There is a good chance the buyer is going to look at what it can be, as opposed to what it is today because it does have an older stadium and a fanbase it’s not exactly been on the best terms with.
“If you were able to engage the fanbase,” he continued, “get a new stadium, get a lot more sponsorship, you could change the revenue model quite dramatically of that business, which would mean it would be worth more than what just a financial buyer would say it is today.”
British businessman Martin Broughton fronted a consortium that tried to buy Chelsea last year. He also believes the potential to increase United’s value, based on its enormous fanbase, could get the Glazers a top price.
“There is a market there which is currently being tapped by the Googles, Facebooks, Instagrams of this world, which ought to be tapped by the clubs,” he said.
“It is a big market worth a lot of money, and it could change the valuation of the business.
“It’s not an easy thing to do. I think it could be done. Then you could make the case that the value at 6 billion could be good value.”