Britain's fever pitch

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the biggest soccer club in the world, richer than Real Madrid, more successful than Barcelona, a name comparable to the New York Yankees or the Chicago Bulls in global sporting brands.

And on the field, few teams have bested Manchester United in recent years.

But after the injury of losing freekick prodigy and metrosexual icon David Beckham, the 127-year-old soccer club has been dealt the insult of losing ownership to an American billionaire, Malcolm Glazer.

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Mr. Glazer - owner of the 2003 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers - last week went public with a $1.5 billion buyout, and mopped up the last few shares needed to control the club on Monday.

The response has been hysterical. Britons are lamenting the wanton commercialization of their national treasure that they say the Glazer era promises.

Fans are vowing a mass boycott to undermine the new owner. Some have burned effigies of Glazer outside the club's Old Trafford ground. Others are convening a meeting Thursday to discuss splitting off to form the club anew.

"This guy is a parasite and the only way to ensure that a parasite detaches itself from you is to starve yourself," says Oliver Houston, a vice chairman of Shareholders United, a stockholder group that helped ward off another hostile bid by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch seven years ago.

He says fans are already shunning the replica shirts, merchandising, and products from sponsors that Glazer will need to make a success of his ownership.

"I've been a United fan all my life, but I will not be setting foot inside Old Trafford as long as Malcolm Glazer is in charge," he adds.

Such strong reactions may seem at first glance hard to understand. After all, big money has dominated soccer for decades, and billionaire benefactors are hardly new. United itself has used commercial ventures astutely to assure robust profitability ever since it became a public company in 1991.

Wealthy owners often bankroll success, most notably in the case of Chelsea, another English giant. Two years after it was snapped up by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the London club has cruised to its first Premiership title, fortified by the new owner's checkbook and an expensive array of international talent.

But the fear in Manchester is that Glazer will prove to be a very different sort of boss. The principal objection is that he has financed his acquisition through a cool billion dollars of debt that can now be transferred to United's books, effectively mortgaging its future. "He's using Manchester United money to buy Manchester United!" one fan remarked.

Financial observers warn that to pay back this debt, Glazer will have to hike profits exponentially.

"Abramovich has shown if you come with deep pockets and spend heavily then you can do good things," says Hilary Cook, a financial commentator from Barclays Stockbrokers. "But it's felt that perhaps Glazer doesn't have as big a checkbook.

Apart from declaring himself an "avid" United fan, and a report indicating his interest in getting Beckham back, the US tycoon has shunned the limelight and shed little light on his business motives. But he is no doubt attracted by the enormous popularity of soccer around the world (an estimated 1.1 billion people watched the last World Cup final in 2002) and the fact that a club like Manchester United, with legends like Bobby Charlton and George Best, is as big as they come.

Many of its millions of adherents worldwide are in China, promising formidable commercial opportunities.

"He must be looking at overseas markets," says Bill Gerrard, professor of sport management and finance at Leeds University Business School. Glazer might also consider trying to drive better television deals to increase income, particularly when it comes to rights from broadcasts overseas. That could mean a big shake up of British soccer, which is funded primarily with TV money.

Professor Gerrard adds that the new boss is unlikely to fail to invest in the best players. "He needs to win the fans over and for that he needs a successful team," he says.

Fans are not so sanguine. They fear Glazer will rein in the payroll, weakening United's once-mighty roster, and sell the Old Trafford stadium to a sponsor. They worry that he'll hike ticket prices - which still average a modest $50 - as he did at Tampa Bay. And some express concern that United could become a US-style franchise, with US-style portability.

Andy Mitten, editor of club fanzine United We Stand, says it is estimated that Glazer will need to find $90 million a year just to service the debt. The club currently averages $50 million in profit each year.

"It's a working class city and people are worried they'll be priced out of supporting the club," he says. "[Soccer] is not a traditional business - if you're not happy with the product you can't just go down the road and watch [bitter rival] Manchester City."

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