It was during one of Manchester United’s quarterly conference calls with investors in 2018 when Ed Woodward, the club’s former executive vice-chairman, uttered the phrase he was never able to shake off.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” Woodward said.
To many United fans, those words summed up everything that had gone wrong at their club: achieving success on the pitch was no longer deemed to be a priority. It was about maximising revenue through multiple sponsorships across the globe.
But what good is it having enviable riches if, as chief executive Richard Arnold told The 1958, the supporters’ group he went to meet at his local pub in Cheshire last weekend before they could stage a protest outside his family home, it is wasted?
“We have to get this sorted for the future, but what’s happened is we fucking burned through the cash,” Arnold said. “You can’t go to our training ground and say, ‘By the way, show me where that billion pounds is here’. I don’t think we’ve done well with the money we have spent, historically.”
From 2012, United’s revenue grew year on year, other than a slight dip in 2015, until it hit a record £627.1 million for the year ending June 2019. It then dropped to £509 million in 2020 and again to £494.1 million in their latest set of annual accounts (2021).
Despite failing to achieve sustained success on the pitch in the past decade, United were still able to generate huge sums of money because of their illustrious history.
That, however, can only last so long.
And with interest payments on their debt — servicing the Glazer family’s leveraged buyout in 2005 — over the last decade understood to total £282 million and dividend pay-outs since 2016 hitting £122 million, the club’s losses are being accelerated.
So why has this happened at a club of their size?
The strength of feeling towards the Glazers for continuing to take money out of the club at a time when they have fallen so far behind their rivals, be it on the pitch or from an infrastructure point of view, remains at boiling point.
The owners are due to take another £11 million out of the club today (Friday).
Former United stalwart Gary Neville posted on Twitter, urging them to decide against accepting this payment and instead announce they would not take dividends for the next three years but invest that money into improving the squad, the training ground at Carrington and Old Trafford.
The Glazer Family should NOT be taking £11m in dividends this Friday. It isn’t right with the investment needed in the team,stadium and training ground. The clubs cash position is low compared to previous years. An announcement is needed to halt it for the next 3 years minimum.
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) June 20, 2022
To help with cash flow during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Glazers did defer more than half of what they would normally receive in dividends.
“In 2021, they delayed the payment of one of the revenues until 2022, so I think they will have taken out £33 million in 2022,” says Kieran Maguire, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and The Price Of Football author.
It is perfectly normal for dividends to be paid out by corporate businesses, it must be said, but United are the only football club to do so.
Manchester United PLC’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange also means payments are completely transparent.
United will point to the fact that paying the dividends has not dented their ability to invest over £1 billion since 2013 and that the percentage is small when compared to overall revenue. And, although the Glazers receive the overwhelming majority of the cash, the dividends also go to pension funds, smaller investors and supporters.
That, however, does not wash with large sections of the fanbase.
“Perhaps it looks worse for a business which has failed to invest in property assets,” Maguire responds when asked whether the dividends only look bad because it is a football club paying them.
“If you take a look at Project Big Picture and you take a look at the Super League… there was going to effectively be central funds from which capital expenditure projects would be financed. So United were hoping that the Premier League would be contributing towards the development of Old Trafford rather than the Glazers.
“It will come down to United having to go to lenders to fund that, because the Glazers aren’t going to put the money in.
“For the people that claim they care about the club and that they care about football, well, you’ve got the sale of shares from Kevin (Glazer) and Edward (Glazer) last year. They made what is believed to be about £100 million, and that is on top of the dividends.
“Manchester United is a very good cash cow for the Glazers.”
In Deloitte’s most recent Football Money League, which was published in March and takes into account the 2020-21 season, United were in fifth place behind, in order, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
For comparison, they were fourth on the 2019-20 version of the list, third in both 2018-19 and 2017-18, first in 2016-17 and 2015-16, third in 2014-15, second in 2013-14 and fourth in 2012-13. And until City topped this year’s table, they had never been ranked lower than another English club.
It highlights just how badly impacted United were by the pandemic, supported by the fact their match-day revenue dropped from £110.9 million (2019) to £89.8 million (2020) before dramatically falling to just £7.2 million (2021).
Playing all those games in front of an empty Old Trafford and not being able to sell merchandise in their megastore to the people whose bums would have been in those seats hit them harder than their Premier League and continental rivals.
In normal times, you would expect United’s stadium to be busy every day of the week — the tills would be ringing inside the megastore, supporters would be going on tours of one of the sport’s most famous venues and hospitality suites would be hired by corporate guests to stage events.
Match-day income appears to have plateaued at around the £110 million mark in the years before the pandemic, and it is unlikely to go beyond that unless Old Trafford is redeveloped.
One way to immediately improve the income stream would be to raise season ticket prices for the first time in 11 years, but that financial gain may not be worth the damage it would do to already-strained supporter relations.
“I think Manchester United have been hit more by COVID than some of their peer group, certainly in the UK, because they used to have the highest match-day revenues and that was the one area that was hit most significantly,” Maguire says.
“I’d still expect them to be at around £600 million (in overall revenue) for 2022. They’ve had Old Trafford open for a season, so that’s going to boost match-day revenues back to around about £110 million.”
Maguire’s optimism that United are not as cash-strapped as some may think is supported by the club’s latest quarterly results, which were published in May.
Revenues grew from £118.3 million for the same period last year to £152.8 million in the three months ending March 31, 2022. But the club still made an operating loss of £21.8 million over that period.
Commercial revenue for that same quarter grew to £65.6 million from £58.1 million last year, while match-day revenue flew up to £35.7 million from £1.6 million. This is because all but one of United’s home games in the 2020-21 season were played behind closed doors. The club made an operating loss of £21.8 million over our three-month sample period.
Even though those numbers — except the loss — are encouraging, the room for further growth beyond that record revenue in 2019 is likely to remain limited until United become successful again on the pitch.
When software firm TeamViewer replaced Chevrolet as United’s front-of-shirt sponsor last year, multiple reports claimed its deal was worth significantly less than the American car company’s £64 million per season. “I think the consensus was that Chevrolet overpaid for the deal and TeamViewer is probably more of a market rate,” Maguire says.
Sponsors at the top end want to align themselves with success. It looks good for them if they can pose next to a shiny trophy and have it pictured in their brochure.
According to their website, United currently has 22 global partners, nine media partners through their in-house TV channel MUTV, 13 financial partners and three regional partners.
Whether it is a deal with Mlily, their global mattress and pillow partner, or Remington, the club’s electrical styling partner, United are still a worldwide attraction when it comes to exploring commercial opportunities.
That said, their commercial revenue took a £47-million hit, falling from £279 million (2020) to £232.2 million (2021). United say a lack of an overseas pre-season tour before the 2020-21 campaign, again owing to the impact of COVID-19, is a key reason behind that drop.
A significant portion of that commercial loss was eaten up in sponsorship revenue, which fell from £182.7 million (2020) to £140.2 million (2021).
“Sponsors will only pay more money if the club is delivering,” Maguire says. “If you take a look at commercial revenue, it grew from £152 million in 2013 to £268 million by 2016. That’s absolutely amazing.
“But that was effectively locking in the Chevrolet deal and the Adidas (kit) deal. Therefore, they had to either have new deals or extract more from existing sponsors. I think this is where it has been challenging because if you are a commercial partner, you want your product next to success and Manchester United have not delivered success.
“So we’ve seen commercial revenue plateau since 2016 and it is becoming harder and harder because United are relying on their history to generate deals rather than the present.”
One well-placed source suggested United would benefit from taking more of a long-term view when it comes to increasing their commercial revenue. The thought is that if they take the early financial pain, it will translate into long-term growth because it will afford them time to gather more data from the consumer. This is thinking about the next 10 years, not just the next three.
There is a feeling that, because of COVID-19, the club somewhat lost their way in securing partners. They understandably needed cash to help plug a financial hole brought on by the pandemic.
Although the pandemic impacted United more severely than some of their rivals, another reason for their faltering finances has been down to player trading.
Maguire calculates their player-sales profit from 2014-21 was only £101 million, compared to Manchester City’s £228 million, Liverpool’s £370 million and Chelsea’s £568 million.
United turned down a fee in the last January window for Jesse Lingard, who only had six months remaining on his contract. The England forward has now left the club as a free agent, as have Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Edinson Cavani.
“They have become a destination club, once players get there,” Maguire says. “They have had this strange policy of extending contracts and ending up with peripheral players just picking up a wage and then leaving at the end of a contract.”
Not only have United fallen behind their domestic rivals in terms of finances generated via player trading but they have also become bit-part players in the Champions League.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager at the end of the 2012-13 season, following their most recent title triumph, United have only finished fourth or better in the Premier League four times, and they are yet to progress beyond the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite club competition under any of the Scot’s five successors.
UEFA changing the qualification rules, meaning the Premier League will almost certainly have five Champions League spots each season instead of four from 2024-25, should benefit United and help close the gap, however.
But, contrary to what Woodward said in 2018, it does matter what happens on the pitch — and United’s accounts are beginning to reflect that.
At a time when their rivals — namely Liverpool and City — experience financial growth, United appear to have plateaued.
If new manager Erik ten Hag can achieve what his predecessors couldn’t in turning them back into a dominant footballing force, then the money will follow.
Until then, you are left wondering whether there will be another billion pounds to invest hopefully in new players over the next decade.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)