United a joke even to Musk
As the old football saying goes, it’s the hope that kills you.
Fans of Manchester United may have briefly wished that Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, might actually have been serious when he tweeted he was buying the storied but stumbling English football club.
He wasn’t, of course — perhaps forgetting that as well as holding a record 20 top-flight titles, the club also trade on the New York Stock Exchange as Manchester United Plc. The last thing Musk needs is more trouble with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
The Tesla Inc co-founder, who has gotten into hot water with regulators owing to a penchant to tweet most anything to his 100 million Twitter followers, would have been a controversial owner, no doubt. But despite being one of the few professional sports teams in any league with a truly global fanbase — including your correspondent in Tokyo, as well as a boyhood Musk — Manchester United are now a shambles on the pitch. Fans are in dire need of some good news. The club have lost both games so far in the English Premier League season, including last week’s 4-0 drubbing by lowly Brentford; it is nearly ten years since they won a league title.
That makes even Musk look like a better alternative as steward than the children of the late Malcolm Glazer, who bought the club in a controversial leveraged buyout in 2005. So let’s indulge it for a moment: what might an Elon Musk takeover of Manchester United actually have looked like?
Musk is rich, of course, at least as long as Tesla’s share price holds up. With Chelsea Football Club selling for about $5.2 billion, Musk could probably have picked up United, who have an enterprise value of $2.7 billion, with the money made from the Tesla stock he sold last week — assuming a US court doesn’t force him to buy Twitter Inc — with change left over to buy a striker to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. With the club scrambling to buy players to help embattled new manager Erik ten Hag, an injection of cash would be welcome. And just think of the potential synergies with Tesla products: Elon has yet to demonstrate a moving version of his forthcoming Optimus robot, but even a static bot would likely be an improvement in midfield on Scott McTominay.
But the problem with the Glazers is not, as fans often complain, that they have not spent enough. The problem is with how they’ve spent it. More than $1 billion has been splurged on players in the past decade; almost all of them have been failures.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s glittering 27-year reign came to an end in 2013, United have changed course on managers over and over in an attempt to chase short-term glory. David Moyes was given a six-year contract to succeed Ferguson and sacked after ten months. That was followed by allowing Louis van Gaal two years to demolish and rebuild the team, before ignominiously dumping him just as he was starting to win. José Mourinho, his replacement in 2016, was a failure anyone could see coming — he had just recently been fired from the very same job at Chelsea. In July last year, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was given a new contract and then shown the door just five months later. And on and on it goes.
For all Musk’s flaws, a lack of long-term vision is not one of them. Tesla and SpaceX do things that others once deemed impossible. And surely he could not have done that without hiring top executives, something the Glazers have been abysmal at.
And Elon likely wouldn’t be the most provocative owner in the world — or even the Premier League, which is rife with controversial proprietors and sportswashing suspicions. Newcastle United were taken over last year by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, just three years on from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The spending of Manchester City, owned by United Arab Emirates deputy prime minister Sheikh Mansour, has attracted nearly as much attention as their on-field success. The US owners who make up more than half the Premier League mostly seem to be in it for return on capital, when what fans want is usually unlimited spending and ambition. A wave of Chinese buying of European clubs in the mid-2010s raised eyebrows, but has largely been dialled back.
Whether Musk would have passed the “fit and proper person” test for English football ownership is a question we will — for now — be able to avoid answering. But with United next set to face arch rivals Liverpool, to whom they lost by an aggregate 9-0 across two games last season, forgive fans for hoping Musk’s tweet inspires another benevolent billionaire.
• Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News senior editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief