Manchester United's flotation device to tackle fair play rules

The Premier League champions plan to raise money in Asia to meet financial fair play. Is this the best way forward for the Old Trafford club?

Manchester United will hope the global appeal of the club will generate interest when it appears on the Singapore stock market.
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The Premier League champions plan to raise money in Asia to meet financial fair play. Is this the best way forward for the Old Trafford club?

Much more than a case of raising funds where cash is plentiful, Manchester United's plan to seek US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) on Singapore's stock market is a marrying of financial sense and global supporter sentiment - and a resounding indication of where the club sees future growth.

The English Premier League club, delisted from London's stock exchange in 2005 when it was bought by the American Glazer family, is now saddled with debts that have led to a vilification of the Glazers among fans.

It has also left United in danger of struggling to meet "Financial Fair Play" rules put forward by Uefa, football's European governing body.

And while the Glazers have made it clear they have no intention of selling, a flotation in Singapore makes perfect sense on many fronts: it will help reduce the debt burden; it targets Asia's strong economic and investment growth and, crucially, it will deepen United's links with a region ripe for expanding the club's powerful global brand.

"With two-thirds of their fans residing in Asia, two-thirds of the world living in Asia ... there's an attractive audience base to tap into," Ben Heyhoe Flint, a Singapore-based sports sponsorship expert, said.

"Couple that with high growth markets and high growth brands, and there's a valid commercial reason [for listing in Singapore] in that they are getting closer to potential sponsors in Asia where they've had success before," added Flint, the head of Asia-Pacific for sponsorship consultants Fuse.

At an estimated $1bn, the Initial Public Offering (IPO) would be the world's largest for a sports organisation, but small compared to other businesses. Companies typically sell a quarter to a third of their shares in an IPO, giving Manchester United a potential value of up to $4bn.

"Will people invest? If they open up the IPO to individual investors, and not institutional as is rumoured, then I think you'll find that yes, fans will be drawn into making an emotional investment into their beloved club," Flint said.

"From an institutional point of view, we've seen serious interest in ownership of Premier League clubs from Singapore and Thailand recently so I'm sure it will also draw interest at that level."

Last year Peter Lim, the Singapore billionaire, made a £320 million (Dh1.9bn) bid to buy Liverpool, but later withdrew the offer after the club went into the hands of New England Sports Ventures following a court ruling.

Lim separately has exclusive rights to own and operate a chain of Manchester United-themed restaurants in Asia.

Not everyone is so confident investors will be eager to pour their money into England's most successful club, however.

"I guess Manchester United is trying to ride their popularity in Asia," Roger Tan, the head of research at SIAS Research, said.

"Frankly I do hear that football clubs are not usually profitable, so if they are really listing in Singapore, I would suggest potential investors look closely at the numbers. Investing in a club is very different from supporting a club."

United's 2010 full-year results showed gross debt attached to the club of £522m, with a net loss of £84m.

Hong Kong, which had been touted as an alternative listing venue, bars unprofitable companies from listing on its exchange. Football enjoys a massive following among Singapore's 5.1 million inhabitants. The Premier League is a huge draw on cable television and there are scores of Liverpool and Manchester United fan clubs across the island.

"Of course not," said Ernest Teng, a United fan and a sales manager in an IT firm in Singapore when asked if he would buy shares.

"The $4bn valuation is crazy. Bottom line is the Glazers will still be in control. All I want to see is for them to sell out and not burden the club with so much debt."

The IPO of a globally recognised brand such as United would be a coup for Singapore, which has been competing with Hong Kong for international listings.

"Obviously it's a big brand name, there will be some novelty effect, but whether investors will go for it will depend on the offer price, whether they have some dividend yield guaranteed," Andrew Chow, the head of research at UOB Kay Hian, said.

"People will be interested to listen to what they have got to offer, but whether people will want to put their money in is a different ball game."

English football clubs flirting with the region is nothing new - it was, after all, English engineers, builders and bricklayers who helped create the foundations of so many overseas clubs and leagues that made football a truly global game in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, the trailblazing is a little different, based on a multi-billion dollar consumer market.

The Premier League has been aware of the riches that await in Asia, instigating the officially-sanctioned Premier League Asia Trophy in 2003 and holding it every two years since then.

Apart from that tournament, United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and others have all toured Asia, playing to huge crowds, spreading the word, selling replica shirts and reaping huge profits.

Clubs have also scouted for the best Asian players who have, in cases such as Park Ji-sung at United or Chung Lee-yong at Bolton Wanderers, forced their way into the first teams in England.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, makes no secret of the importance Asia plays in the Premier League's financial success story.

"The passion for football and especially the Premier League in Asia is as intense as it is back in England, if not more so," he said in recent round-table meetings.

"The reason our clubs go to Asia and we hold the Asian tournament is for them to see their heroes live and for the clubs to exploit their market potential as much as they can. It is a natural two-way relationship."