February 6, 2023



Is the gravity-defying Manchester United brand facing a fall back to earth? | Barney Ronay | Football

5 min read

What’s your favourite bit of non-football-football so far? In my opinion the best new sub-genre to emerge is pictures of José Mourinho delivering vegetables.

You don’t have to go looking for them. They just turn up on your social media feed or on the click-bar beneath a news story. Handsome, crinkly José carrying a box of lettuce across the tenement threshold. José in a surgical mask distributing radishes to elderly war heroes. José off-camera giving a secret briefing against the fucking artichoke guy who isn’t pulling his weight (premium content: subscribers only).

It is a wonderful piece of casting against type, and our good fortune that this keeps happening in places where photographers are present. Perhaps in time an Inspirational José charity calendar could be produced. José, shirtless, delivers a baby calf. José laughs with orphans on a seaside teacup ride. José poses in a landmine helmet, England’s rose steering us through these dark, unmonetised, content-poor times.

Probably this is just me. But in fairness, it has been slim pickings out there. The suspension of the match programme is one thing. The most notable co-casualty of the plague times is the absence of the endless football-style content that rides alongside: the lifestyle, the brand, the lucrative sense of belonging, a definition of football that has allowed certain Premier League clubs to state, with supporting commercial evidence, that they have a billion fans around the world, that they are in fact too big to fail.

It is easy to forget this side of the business has also been scythed off at the knees. Right now eyeballs are no longer eyeballing. Clicks are unclicked. Needs, desires and disposable income are focused elsewhere. And the absence of this shadow industry is perhaps just as significant, at least for those clubs that rely on it to an unusual degree.

At which point, enter Manchester United. Or rather, enter “Manchester United”. For the past seven years the endless growth of the United brand has been one of sport’s gravity-defying miracles, a marvel of the age. How do you kill this thing? How do you stop it rising and spreading? Throw what you like at it. A full season of migraine-inducing Mourinho death-ball. A foul-tempered home defeat to a peppy Southampton on a freezing afternoon inside a clanky rain-drenched stadium followed by a half an hour of finger-jabbing post-match bile. It makes no difference. Switch the channel and Manchester United plc are still announcing record revenues, still bathing in an apparently insatiable appetite for its red-shirted commercial voodoo.

Old Trafford

‘United’s commercial arm has been breathtakingly successful at monetising the era-building of the previous 20 years.’ Photograph: Nigel French/PA

And yet, there are no miracles really. Nobody really knows what the short-, medium- or long-term future might hold. What is certain is this is a stress test of something unprecedented. United’s commercial arm has been breathtakingly successful at monetising the era-building of the previous 20 years. They have been hanging on to a rising balloon, £400m in debt but still clawing in cash to keep the engines thrumming forward.

No other club is set up quite like this. It is a model predicated on constant growth, constant momentum. What happens when it crashes? More to the point, does this actually have to be a bad thing? So far there have been attempts to suggest large debts and reduced income isn’t a problem. Perhaps correctly so. It has been pointed out by people who know this world that United have such ready access to credit they can simply borrow more without it being a problem. There is also a suggestion the reliance on commercial income actually puts them in a better place than other clubs. This version of the future states that the Official Brassiere Partner model is a huge advantage, a diversification of income to insulate the club against the absence of actual football.

Does this sound convincing? The mathematics are certainly fascinating. One detailed projection in the Daily Mail has United losing £116m in commercial, TV and matchday revenue if the season is cancelled now, the most of any club. But why not more?

The notion sponsors will keep propping this up is untested. There is already talk elsewhere of discounts. United’s “partners” are taking huge hits of their own. Those contracts will have force majeure clauses, or be open to frustration principles under common law. The Glazer family’s own main business is based on vast areas of physical retail space in the US. Good luck with that one. Excess commercial deals, endless sloshing cash: this just isn’t going to be there any more.

This is an industry-wide problem. But United are the most extreme debt-loaded commercial model out there, a buy-to-let landlord in the middle of a rent revolt. Wages topped £300m last year. Encouragingly, debt repayments are a mere £26m. But still: extend the match-staging restrictions into next season and the losses start to become vertiginous. Ever wondered why there is such an urgency to resume playing? Why we have Project Restart looming, a strangely menacing prospect that sounds less like a “festival of football”, more like a doomed 1980s burglar rehabilitation initiative. The clubs need the money.

Who knows, some kind of correction might be a good thing. It is no secret the Glazers are terrible owners from one perspective. Fantastic for the commercial operation, yes, but there is no love here, no sense of sporting soul, no real interest in the intangible things – collectivism, sporting culture, coherent long-term planning – that built this super-club in the first place.

This is an ownership that has ridden a rising tide, squatting on the shoulders of a grand old footballing institution. Many have wondered how United will ever escape this cycle of vampiric, debt-loaded ownership. In practice the only way is to become less attractive, less endlessly fecund. Contraction, brand collapse, revolution: whatever happens there will always be a Manchester United. In the meantime, here’s your earthquake.

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