Manchester United: the battle begins

Offers could top pounds 1bn, following BSkyB ruling

A BID battle for Manchester United is expected to erupt following the Government's decision to block BSkyB's takeover of the Premier League football club.

Many analysts felt that the pounds 623m price tag undervalued Manchester United and believe that other companies could come in with higher bids.

Tony Fraher, who runs Singer & Friedlander's Football Fund, said: "Manchester United was being sold for a steal. People have valued the club as high as pounds 1.2bn and reckon that it could be making pounds 180m a year by 2005."

He raised the prospect of a European media company, such as France's CanalPlus or MediaSet of Italy, emerging as a possible bidder.

"While the BSkyB bid could be refused, there would be no grounds to reject a bid by a continental European media company," he said.

"That would be a matter for the European Union, which has not had any objection to CanalPlus owning Paris St Germain or MediaSet owning AC Milan."

Manchester United shares fell nearly 15 per cent on Friday, following the announcement by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that the bid "may be expected to operate against the public interest".

Acting on the recommendations of the Monopolies & Mergers Commission, Mr Byers said that the deal would reduce competition for broadcasting rights to Premier League matches. BSkyB, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, owns the exclusive rights to broadcast live Premier League matches until 2001.

Some analysts believe that the 256-page MMC report into the proposed takeover does not preclude another media company bidding for Manchester United.

Steven Lloyd, an analyst with the KPMG European Football Unit, said: "The Government's statement seems to indicate that the BSkyB deal would be unfair to other media companies, so I don't see that it prevents a bid from Granada or Carlton, for example. In the United States, companies like Time Warner, Disney and Comcast own sports franchises and they see a direct affinity between target audiences and television subscribers."

Manchester United's fate may depend on its chief executive Martin Edwards, who owns 14 per cent of the club. The undertaking to sell his stake to BSkyB has now lapsed, but Mr Edwards is still considered to be eager to dispose of his shares, which are worth about pounds 67m.

Michael Crick, organiser of the Shareholders United Against Murdoch pressure group, said: "The club is in a very unstable situation, since 14 per cent of the shares are owned by Martin Edwards - who wants to sell - and BSkyB still has 11 per cent."

Although there have been calls for Mr Edwards to stand down he is thought to retain the support of the board and is expected to remain at the club. Professor Roland Smith, Manchester United's chairman who was due to stand down, is now expected to stay on the board.

BSkyB said that it had not yet decided whether to sell its Manchester United shares. The pay-TV company has an ongoing link with the club via MUTV, Manchester United's dedicated TV channel.

A more significant test case for the possibility of media companies buying football clubs may be the fate of cable group NTL's bid for Newcastle United, which has also been referred to the Competition Commission, the successor to the MMC.

Mr Fraher said: "The referral of NTL's bid was more surprising. If this bid were rejected, it would be seriously bad news for the ownership of English football clubs."

Enic, the leisure group with stakes in five different European football clubs, has been named as a possible bidder for Manchester United, although insiders played down its interest.

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