David Conn: Television revenues unlikely to provide the answer to United's £540m question

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The Independent Football

Ten days since the most aggressive and - after Roman Abramovich's Chelsea adventure - second most bizarre takeover in English football history, and, still, no meaningful pronouncement from Manchester United's new owner about what he intends to do with the glory-strewn club now that he really, shockingly, owns it. Around Old Trafford there is an air of staff and fans stumbling out of rubble, struggling to make sense of the question howling in the void: does Malcolm Glazer have some shrewd masterplan to support - and repay - the £812m, all of it probably borrowed at high interest, that he has spent taking over Manchester United, or has he utterly overestimated the club's moneymaking potential?

As Manchester United's fans, together with some evidently worried chairmen of other Premiership clubs, confronted the fact of Glazer's ownership of United, opinion began to crystallise that he must be planning to rip United out of the Premier League's collective television deal when it runs out in 2007, so that United can fully exploit the media rights to their own matches without having to share with the other 19 clubs. All the other areas which it is assumed he will squeeze - increasing ticket prices, hammering the merchandising, selling the Old Trafford name, building a casino, just do not look like they can earn enough for United even to pay the interest on the huge debts with which Glazer will saddle the club once he has removed it from the Stock Exchange.

The debt, at least £540m, made up of a straight £265m loan and £275m advanced by investors in return for special preference shares, may actually be £272m greater. This last figure is the amount the Glazers are putting up themselves, including the United shares they have already bought. If, as most sources assume, the Glazer family have borrowed that money too, it becomes another debt which, one way or the other, United may be expected to service. With interest on some of this finance said to be as high as 18 per cent, including a bridging loan the Glazers are believed to have taken out to buy the stake previously owned by the Irish investors John Magnier and J P McManus, the annual interest ladled on to United may be substantially higher even than the £46m calculated by The Independent last week.

Yet the idea that Glazer will crack open the Premier League's TV arrangements to make the money to service that debt was being conclusively squashed this week. Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, was unusually quick to stress publicly the Premier League's "conservative constitution", which requires 14 clubs to agree any rule change, a majority unthinkable for any proposal to allow clubs to sell rights themselves; that would deliver a jackpot to the biggest clubs, leaving very little for the rest.

Thoughts then turned to the possibility that Glazer could take a case to Brussels, where the European Commission has for years challenged the Premier League's collective TV deals, arguing that they harm consumers by limiting numbers of matches shown, and allowing one exclusive broadcaster, in our case BSkyB, to charge excessively for coverage. The Premier League's executives have spent years pressing the case in Europe that they cannot run a meaningful league if the clubs do not act collectively and share the joint proceeds around the 20 clubs to create at least a sniff of a level playing field.

There has always been a bitter irony in this, as the Premier League was formed in 1992 by the Football League's First Division clubs, fleeing sharing TV money with the other three divisions, but, nevertheless, Europe seems to have got the message.

An EC spokesman, Jonathan Todd, was emphatic this week that Brussels does not object to collective selling in itself, and is not about to support any challenge to it: "Our concern is with the damage collective selling [deals] can cause consumers," he told me, "and we have been working with the Premier League to avoid them. We have approved collective agreements with the German Bundesliga and Uefa for the Champions' League."

Asked whether the EC might support a challenge to collective selling if one were to come from one of the clubs, Todd said no: "I do not think we would have any part to play in any such action."

This has shredded the idea that Glazer will whittle away at his debt mountain by attacking the Premier League's collective TV deals; the clubs would oppose him and he would get no help from Brussels.

So this begs the question yet more insistently: what is buttressing Glazer's staggering figures, the plan to load United with at least five times the debt weighing down Leeds when they became modern football's most notorious collapse? The Glazer family, still, will not reveal their plans. They have issued painfully little besides the much-derided assertion that they are "keen supporters of Manchester United", and a document about how they turned round their NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It narrates that in 1995, Malcolm Glazer paid "a record price" for the Buccaneers, then boosted its sales and marketing, built a new stadium - which led to a dispute with the local authority - and, with sensitive recruitment of coaches and players, won the franchise's first ever Super Bowl in January 2003.

United's campaigning fans have long argued that their club does not equate to a rundown NFL franchise, is generally envied for making more money than any other football club in the world, so the potential to reap the vast increase now required just to pay the cost of the Glazer takeover is simply not there. United's board, it should be remembered, consistently agreed, having been granted what the footballing public has so far been denied, a sight of the business plan. Its assumptions, the board said when refusing to recommend the bid, were "aggressive", and could put a "direct and indirect strain" on the club.

Glazer's camp point to the involvement of NM Rothschild, the merchant bank, and financiers JP Morgan, in setting up the deal, arguing that those august institutions must believe the plan is robust. Others, however, point out that the banks could be on a winner whatever happens; they will have earned huge fees, are in the business of lending money, and they are also secured; the £265m loan is mortgaged on United itself, while a Glazer spokesman confirmed that the lenders of the other £275m will, in addition to their high-interest preference shares, also be secured on Glazer family assets. This is likely to be on the family's property interests or their shares in a company, Zapata, which has interests in a fish oil company and another which makes safety airbags. The security will not, however, be the Buccaneers, because the NFL, unlike our own wide open national sport, is highly regulated and does not allow its clubs to be hocked to banks.

An intriguing twist in this saga is that Glazer may now pay millions to thousands of fans who have furiously opposed his takeover. Besides recommending a boycott of merchandising and the sponsors' products, and peaceful protests starting at the FA Cup final today, Shareholders United are urging all fans ultimately to accept Glazer's offer of £3 a share, then put the proceeds into a "Phoenix Fund", accumulating interest, awaiting the chance to "reclaim United". At that price, even Shareholders United's mere 2.5 per cent of United will reap £20m-£25m. Nick Towle, SU's chairman, believes that with other pledges from outraged United fan-shareholders, they could double that stake. That raises the extraordinary possibility that a fans' group could end up holding up to £50m, around four times, for example, the money which Everton's chairman, Bill Kenwright, has been seeking to bail out the Premiership's fourth-placed club, and more than Liverpool were considering accepting from Steve Morgan to give him control.

"This could be a great opportunity for United fans to own a significant portion of the club," Towle said. "We agree with the commentators that Glazer's figures cannot possibly add up. His plan could very well collapse, and we will be waiting then to play a great role in the future."

Which, again, begs the question echoing above the emotional wreckage at Old Trafford: is there a pile of dollars which Malcolm Glazer can make out of United which everybody else has missed, or has he, possibly, made the biggest miscalculation in English football history?

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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