Man United IPO shows soccer's limited investor appeal

LONDON Fri Aug 10, 2012 9:48am EDT

Shoppers walk past a Manchester United merchandise store at a mall in Singapore in this June 14, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Tim Chong/Files

Shoppers walk past a Manchester United merchandise store at a mall in Singapore in this June 14, 2012 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Chong/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - Manchester United (MANU.N) makes a cut-price debut on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday after a flotation that has disappointed the English soccer club's American owners and enraged some of its fans.

Soccer is the world's most popular sport, but the setback for the initial public offering underlines the limited appeal of even its biggest names for investors.

The IPO priced at $14, below the $16-20 range the club's bankers had been seeking. It valued the 19-times English champions at $2.3 billion and shaved as much as $100 million off the proceeds expected for the team and its owners.

The offering raised $233 million, to be split equally between the club and its owners, the Florida-based Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team.

The loss of as much as $50 million for the club will be a blow as it copes with a heavy debt burden and seeks to buy new players, who cost tens of millions of dollars each. United had debt of 423 million pounds ($661 million) at the end of March.

The 134-year-old club looked at listing in Singapore and Hong Kong last year to tap into its large Asian fan base but pulled out, blaming volatile markets.

A group of United fans who are campaigning for greater involvement in the ownership of the club jeered the Glazers.

"It would seem all the analysis of the true valuation was correct; the Glazers and their advisors were being far too ambitious - or perhaps greedy - and the true value of the shares should be around $10 rather than the $20 the Glazers were seeking," said Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST).

"It means less money coming into the club to pay down the Glazers' debt and, more annoyingly, the Glazers still take further money out of the club for their own personal means," he added.

MUST is calling for the Glazers to sell up and allow fans to play a greater role in the club's ownership.

The Red Knights, a group of wealthy fans including Goldman Sachs head of asset management Jim O'Neill, weighed a bid for United two years ago but were put off by the price.

LEVERAGED BUYOUT

The Glazers bought United for 790 million pounds in a highly leveraged deal in 2005, taking it private after 14 years on the London Stock Exchange.

Some fans argue that the cost of the debt has forced up ticket prices for the club, which draws sell-out crowds of around 76,000 at its Old Trafford Stadium and claims 659 million followers across the world.

They also say repayments have hindered the team's ability to compete with big-spending rivals on the pitch. The Premier League season begins in just over a week, when United fans will be able to demonstrate their feelings over the club's ownership.

MUST has called for a boycott of the club's sponsors over the IPO. United's commercial appeal was underlined last week when it signed a $559 million deal with General Motors to have the Chevrolet brand on its famous red shirts from 2014.

United suffered a rare barren season last year, losing their Premier League title to crosstown rival Manchester City, whose owner, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, has pumped 800 million pounds into reviving what had long been United's poor relation.

With so much tied to success on the field, soccer clubs are an inherently risky investment.

"I didn't even look at it. I would never, ever invest in a football club," said the head of UK equities at an investment house running around 100 billion pounds in assets.

"The first goal of a club is not to make money for shareholders but to win trophies," said Emmanuel Hembert of management consultancy A.T. Kearney.

Italian champions Juventus (JUVE.MI) is one of the few European soccer clubs with a stock market listing, and it is valued at only around $240 million, according to Reuters data.

"Manchester United itself has a very good business model and has been able to be profitable," he said.

"If there is one club to invest in it would be Manchester United, but being the best economically among your peers may not be enough."

($1 = 0.6396 British pounds)

(Additional reporting by Sinead Cruise; Editing by Will Waterman; For all the latest Olympic news go to here)

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