Manchester United are for sale ... or are they? Later this week, Raine Group, the New York-based investment bank, will assess offers made to buy, or invest in, the Premier League club after setting a Feb. 17 deadline for confirmed bids to be submitted.
But having announced last November that they were exploring "strategic alternatives" in order to find the best way to "continue building on the club's history of success," United's owners, the Glazer family, still have to clarify whether they are seeking a complete sale or a partner investor to boost the finances at Old Trafford.
Sources told ESPN last week that some potential bidders are uncertain of the Glazers' objectives, with scepticism surrounding the question as to whether they are prioritising a full sale.
Reports also linked wealthy investors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia with a move to buy United, while Jim Ratcliffe, Britain's richest man, has confirmed his intention to buy the club he grew up supporting as a boy. Sources have told ESPN that a number of US-based consortia and investment funds are also interested in United.
The future of the Glazers and Manchester United is a complex one, however, and it is not a simple story of keep or sell. Whether a new owner emerges from this process or the Glazers find a new partner, some big issues must be addressed.
Do the Glazers really want to sell?
This is the question being asked by some of the groups with a potential interest in getting involved in the process with Raine Group. Having bought the club to become sole owners in May 2005, the Glazer family now own 69% of United due to some of the siblings diluting their shareholding in recent years.
Edward, Kevin, Bryan and Avram Glazer and their sister, Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, have all sold various percentages of their stake in United. Joel remains executive co-chairman alongside Avram, while Edward, Kevin, Bryan and Darcie continue to hold positions as directors on the club board.
Sources have told ESPN that Joel is keen to retain his interest in United and take the club forward alongside a new partner, with Avram also prepared to the remain with his brother. The four other Glazer siblings want to pursue a full sale. Neither Joel nor Avram possess the finances to buy out the rest of their family members, so the options available are to either attract a partner investor or sell the club completely.
United's supporters, through a number of anti-Glazer campaigns, have made it clear that they want the American family to sell up and leave Old Trafford, allowing a new owner to take full control.
How much are Manchester United worth?
In real terms, at close of business on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Feb. 10, Manchester United were valued at $3.88 billion (£3.22 bn). Since going public with their search for either new investment or a sale last November, the Glazers saw United's share price climb from $13.03 to a high of $25.39 on Feb. 9. But what United are worth and what the Glazers can expect to sell the club for are two totally different figures.
As the biggest club in the world's most high-profile domestic league, United have a scarcity value that has led to some reports suggesting the club could be worth as much $10bn on the open market. That would seem an unrealistically high figure, but if you imagine that United is the biggest house in the most exclusive neighbourhood in town, albeit with some work needed to be done to restore it to former glories, then the appeal to potential buyers is obvious.
Premier League rivals Chelsea were sold for £2.5bn ($3.01bn) last May, with the new owners, led by L.A. Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly, pledging another £1.75bn ($2.11bn) in new investment into the club. The Denver Broncos became the most expensive sports franchise last summer when the team was sold for $4.65bn (£3.86bn). United's global appeal, their huge fan base and commercial power ensure that they are likely to be valued at perhaps twice the figure that Chelsea were sold for, which would also outstrip the Broncos figure as the costliest sports team in the world.
In football terms, only Real Madrid and Barcelona can match the power of United as a global brand, and that is another factor in their ultimate valuation / sale price. This is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy one of the most recognisable names in world sport, so an eventual sale price between £5-6bn ($6-7.2bn) should not be ruled out.
What are the financial issues at United?
This the big issue that will impact on United's valuation and what the Glazers can expect to walk away with if they end up agreeing a full sale. In short, any new owner will have to throw more than £800 million ($963 m) into a financial black hole before they even start investing in the club.
United's debt, as revealed in their most recently published accounts from November, now stands at £514.9m ($620 m). That debt is a legacy of the Glazers' leveraged takeover in 2005, when the family used what had been a debt-free club as security for their £520m ($6.26m) loan to buy United. In addition to the debt, United also owe £307m ($369m) in unpaid transfer fees. This is not unusual in football, with most transfer instalments paid over the length of a player's contract, but United owe the money nonetheless.
There are further financial issues that threaten to eat away at the Glazers' valuation of the club. United are facing a bill of up to £200m ($240m) to build a new training ground and upgrade their current Carrington base for the club's women's team and Academy,. Meanwhile, the costs of modernising Old Trafford or potentially building a new stadium range from £200m to beyond £1bn ($1.2bn) if they choose to go down the route taken by Tottenham Hotspur and build a new stadium on the current site at Old Trafford.
With Manchester City, Arsenal and Spurs all playing in modern stadiums built this century and Liverpool close to completing their upgrade of Anfield, United have already been left behind by their rivals in terms of their stadium, so closing the gap will be a priority for any new owners. Manager Erik ten Hag's success in transforming United's fortunes on the pitch this season is a major positive for new owners, but the team still requires substantial investment to make it competitive for Premier League and Champions League titles, so it is clear that huge funds will be needed to address all the issues at Old Trafford.
These issues are why the Glazers must sell or attract new investment. They simply don't possess the finances to address the problems -- many self-inflicted by years of underinvestment -- and they have now reached a crossroads in their ownership era.
Who wants to buy the club?
Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of chemicals group INEOS and Britain's richest man, is the only confirmed bidder. In the 2022 Sunday Times Rich List, the 70-year-old was reported to have a personal fortune of £6.07bn ($7.3bn). Ratcliffe was born less than 10 miles from Old Trafford in the Manchester satellite town of Failsworth and is regarded by many supporters as the ideal owner -- a boyhood fan with the finances and expertise to revitalise United.
The process to sell or seek investment in United has been overseen by Raine Group on a much-less publicised basis than the sale of Chelsea last year, when Raine were enlisted by Roman Abramovich to offload his stake in the club following the imposition of sanctions on the Russian businessman by the UK government following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This time around, sources have said that the Glazers were keen for the process to be managed confidentially, so it remains unclear as to who is involved and who has registered an interest ahead of Friday's deadline.
There have been widespread reports of interest from groups in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Sources told ESPN during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that the country's rulers would seek to enter the race to buy United, but they were unable to provide further details. Similarly, reports connecting Saudi Arabia to United have lacked firm detail to explain who is behind the interest and how it would be funded.
Sources in the United States have told ESPN that several groups backed by equity funds or wealthy individuals will make offers, but two groups have told ESPN that they have not made a firm move yet due to a lack of clarity as to the Glazers' objectives.
How could Qatar or Saudi Arabia buy United while owning other teams?
It isn't just Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have interests in other teams -- Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) owns Paris Saint-Germain, while Newcastle United's majority owner is the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). Jim Ratcliffe also owns Ligue 1 club Nice and Swiss team FC Lausanne-Sport, so if he was successful in buying United, he would face the same dual-ownership issues that Qatar and Saudi Arabia would have to address.
UEFA and Premier League rules prohibit clubs with the same owners competing against each other in order to maintain the integrity of the competition. However, the regulations are not watertight. UEFA regulations state that "no individual or legal entity may have control of influence over more than one club participating in a UEFA club competition." On that basis, United versus PSG could be an issue if United were to be owned by Qataris, while Nice, who have competed in this season's Europa Conference League, would not be able to face United if Ratcliffe took ownership at Old Trafford.
Yet UEFA has cleared RB Leipzig to compete in the Champions League alongside RB Salzburg (known as FC Salzburg in European competition), despite both clubs both being owned by the Red Bull Group. Check out the club crests of both teams to get an idea of their connection. In June 2017, the adjudicatory chamber of the UEFA club financial control body allowed Leipzig and Salzburg to play in the Champions League after finding that competition regulations had not been breached, citing governance and structural changes made by the clubs.
To avoid a dual-ownership problem at United, any new owner with an interest in another team would simply have to create a structure that would convince UEFA or the Premier League that they are not controlled by the same person or group.
What is the most likely outcome?
This is the $6bn question, and there is no easy answer.
To buy United completely and address all of the key issues, the successful bidder must have extremely deep pockets. And considering the money that needs to be spent to clear the debt and fund the infrastructure projects, if the club is ultimately valued at $6bn (£4.98bn), the Glazers will have to accept walking away with $4bn (£3.32bn), which would still be a huge profit on their initial investment of £270m ($325m) in 2005.
But if the Glazers, namely Joel and Avram, are prepared to ride out the protests and stay at Old Trafford, then they will have to find a way to raise at least £1bn ($1.2bn) to address the key issues at the club.
For United to have a brighter future, the best option would appear to be a complete sale to a (very) wealthy group, but don't underestimate the prospect of the Glazers sticking around for a while longer yet.