Manchester United owners consider selling Premier League icon

Nov 23 (Reuters) - Manchester United's U.S. owners have begun looking at options for the 20-times English soccer champions, including a new investment or a potential sale, 17 years after the Glazer family bought the club.

The Glazer family is working with financial advisers on the process, which could lead to a partial sale of the Old Trafford club or investments including stadium and infrastructure redevelopment, the club said in a statement.

Manchester United (MANU.N) fans have been clamouring for a change of ownership and the Glazers have been the target of intense criticism as the team, which has a record 13 English Premier League titles, have gone five years without winning a trophy. The last silverware they won was the Europa League and League Cup back in 2017.

"As we seek to continue building on the club’s history of success, the board has authorized a thorough evaluation of strategic alternatives," Avram Glazer and Joel Glazer, executive co-chairmen and directors of United, said in the statement.

"We will evaluate all options to ensure that we best serve our fans and that Manchester United maximizes the significant growth opportunities available to the club today and in the future," the statement said.

Its sale may attract high-profile investors.

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe will bid for Manchester United, the Telegraph Sport reported on Wednesday, adding that his renewed interest in buying the club is said to be serious.

In August, Ratcliffe, a long-time fan of the club, had expressed interest in buying United, Reuters reported. At the time, Elon Musk had also joked about planning to buy the club. Chemical firm INEOS, where Ratcliffe is chairman, declined to comment on Wednesday.

Former England captain David Beckham, who spent over a decade at the club, is open to holding talks with potential bidders for Manchester United, Financial Times reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter. Prospective buyers could seek to enlist Beckham to boost their chances of taking over the club.

United could be sold for close to 7 billion pounds ($8.44 billion), FT said, citing a banker close to the process who added a bidding war could send it higher.

Manchester United shares were up nearly 19% in New York trading, building on the more than 14% rise following reports of the sales process on Tuesday afternoon.

The company was worth $2.5 billion at the close of U.S. trading on Tuesday. But at $17.76, the shares are not much higher than their 2012 IPO price of $14.

The club's capitalisation as a public company peaked at $4.3 billion in 2018.

Asian tycoons, especially those from China, have been buying European teams in recent years, including Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers and Italy's Inter Milan.

However, football clubs have since been deemed unfavourable assets by China and any major overseas purchase would seem unlikely at the moment, said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based author of "Sporting Superpower", a book about China's sports ambitions.

"It's almost impossible to see how any Chinese-related entity could justify a purchase of this magnitude in the current climate," he said, citing the economic fallout of China's battle to contain COVID-19 infections. "No state body would approve this kind of deal."

The Glazers, who also own the National Football League's Tampa Bay Bucccaneers, are under pressure with United sitting fifth in the Premier League halfway through the season, currently suspended for the World Cup in Qatar.

The club on Tuesday said star striker Cristiano Ronaldo will leave with immediate effect, marking a bitter end to the Portugal captain's second spell at Old Trafford after he said he felt betrayed by the club.

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Other big clubs are also in play.

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner has said the Premier League side's owners Fenway Sports Group were exploring a sale of the club.

In May, Roman Abramovich sold Chelsea Football Club to an investment group led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital for $3.2 billion (2.5 billion pounds).

Jefferies analysts said they believe ManU would fetch more. The club's Old Trafford stadium is bigger, it has more than 1 billion followers, far more than its London rival, and generates more revenue and core profit.

Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Susannah Streeter estimated the club's worth at more than $4.5 billion.

The Glazers bought United for 790 million pounds ($939.07 million) in 2005 in a highly leveraged deal that has been criticised for loading debt onto the club. They sold 10% of their holding via the 2012 U.S. listing and have sold more shares since.

The Raine Group is acting as financial adviser and Latham & Watkins LLP is the legal adviser to Manchester United.

Rothschild and Co. is acting as financial adviser to the Glazer family shareholders.

One fan protest against the Glazers took place in May 2021, forcing postponement of a home match against Liverpool, one of the club's biggest rivals. It was the first Premier League match postponed by a protest.

United finished sixth last season in their worst Premier League campaign in terms of points earned, failing to qualify for the lucrative European Champions League competition.

They won the last of their record 20 top-flight league titles in 2013, the year the great Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager after more than 26 years in charge.

The club have hired Dutch manager Erik ten Hag from Ajax Amsterdam in a bid to turn around their fortunes.

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History of Manchester United ownership and share price

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($1 = 0.8289 pounds)

Reporting by Jose Joseph and Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru and Kane Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Andres Gonzalez Estebaran and Samuel Indyk in London, Rhea Binoy and Lavanya Ahire in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris, Stephen Coates, Tomasz Janowski and Bill Berkrot

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