League of the millions

Norman Fox looks at the huge rewards awaiting a successful United
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When Manchester United begin their European Champions' League journey this week against last season's winners, Juventus, they will know that the reward for ultimate success - an estimated pounds 15m - would secure their place as the Premiership's leading member of the nouveau riche. What they also know is that the real goal is to keep qualifying for this embryo Euro Super League for which, in future years, the rewards are likely to be even greater.

The key to untold treasure is pay-per-view television which, in spite of the inevitability of early complaints from the customers, is still likely to tempt them to cough up pounds 10 for every crucial European match. Before that, next season, when perplexingly but lucratively the Champions' League is planned to include non-champions, television contracts are to be re- negotiated. The qualifying clubs will reap at least a 10 per cent increase on their present income, which is governed from Zurich by Uefa's marketing arm. The income from television, sponsorship and advertising is spread across all of the competing clubs.

For Manchester United the profits for continuing to qualify beyond this season could mean that if, despite Bosman, transfer fees are allowed to continue growing, they would be able to splash out much more than Newcastle paid Blackburn for Alan Shearer (pounds 15m). But both United and Juventus see that as a dangerous way to exploit their new prosperity.

Like other Italian clubs, Juventus got themselves into difficulties by overspending in the Eighties and early Nineties. They now say Premiership clubs are paying over the odds for foreign players even if, for the moment, they seem flush. Not that their vice-president, Roberto Bettega, complained about taking Chelsea and Middlesbrough's money for Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli.

"We have to balance the books," Bettega said. "Which sometimes means letting players go while they are still good but maybe have gone over their peak and may not be any good for keeping us in the Champions' League." His moves in the market last summer ended with a profit on transfers of pounds 3m, which was welcome since Juventus reckon that their European success profited them by not much more than the income they received from Sony in sponsorship (also pounds 3m).

They predict that receipts from the Champions' League in the future will make it easier to build teams that are consistently high fliers without necessarily having one or two star players whose wages drain the club and who are worth nothing when their contracts expire. Martin Edwards, United's chief executive, takes a similar line. "Our strategy has always been to look at the longer term," he said. "It's very rare for us to buy a very mature player. Being in the Champions' League will reinforce the promotion of our young players, not change our policy."

United are revelling in their financial potential both at home and in the European competition. Under new Uefa rules, qualifiers for the group matches receive pounds 1m, which, for United, is pocket money. But qualifying is nothing more than a foot in the door of a generous bank. A draw against Juventus would bring in a bonus of pounds 265,000; a win pounds 530,000. That can be multiplied over the remaining group matches. A quarter-final appearance is worth pounds 1.5m, the semi-final pounds 1.6m and the final pounds 2.12m, without taking into consideration the enormous benefits from being able to sell themselves as the best club in Europe. Incredibly, they would be receiving more if they could negotiate television and ground advertising money which is at present pooled by Uefa. Edwards said: "The bigger clubs like United could be better off if they were allowed to do their own deals but Uefa know that doing it this way there is more money to be divided up. They set the rules so we abide by them."

United are also benefiting from the Premiership's latest pounds 670m deal with BSkyB (the envy of the Italians) which works out at around pounds 8m per club. With bonuses, that could reach over pounds 10m. So even without selling a single replica shirt (a much criticised ploy that brings in nearly pounds 7m a season) or ticket, United, if they continue to qualify for the Champions' League, are looking at a gold mine. Perhaps remembering Blackburn's failure last season, Edwards said he had based his projections this season on two wins and two draws in Europe, which would trawl pounds 4.5m.

As Edwards speaks in mega-millions, it is hardly any wonder that the fans, whose ever- growing expenditure on tickets is becoming an ever-less important proportion of United's total income, are sometimes treated as almost unnecessary extras to the people who matter, the sponsors, television negotiators and marketing people. Yet an increase of 12,000 in the capacity of Old Trafford this season will mean an improvement of pounds 5m a year from gate receipts, a significant contribution towards the pounds 28m cost of the new North Stand.

Even before this season's European excursion United's Stock Exchange value was quoted at pounds 266m. The reason, according to Maurice Watkins, a United director, is that football here has come through its dark age and is "politically acceptable". He also knows that United are "a world brand name" which, more than anything, was why they felt that they could "risk" going public.