UK: Editorial - Playing football with business.

UK: Editorial - Playing football with business. - Rupert Murdoch's bid for Manchester United will be ruled in - or out - early next month by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, passing this very slippery buck to the secretary of state for trade and in

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Rupert Murdoch's bid for Manchester United will be ruled in - or out - early next month by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, passing this very slippery buck to the secretary of state for trade and industry.

It will not only signal the competition policy of the Government but will also set the style of its relationship with the proprietor of The Sun and The Sunday Times. In this issue, Jim White dissects the business at Old Trafford and explains why it has become so valuable to Murdoch and his rivals. The crucial reason is the quality of its management.

Putting the monopoly issues to one side, the most eye-popping element of the deal is the price - a hefty £682 million. Until recently football clubs were valued at a fraction of that. Most still are. Manchester United itself was nearly sold for £10 million less than 10 years ago.

One man has made the big difference between the United of today and every other club. He is a tough, red-faced manager who has propelled the company into the position it is in today through force of personality, tenacity and skill. It comes as no surprise that Murdoch's terms include Alex Ferguson staying at the club.

Ferguson has something to teach everyone involved in assessing the value of a business. In the late 1980s, the bombastic Scot was treated with contempt by those who admire him most today: not just football fans but stock market investors and analysts.

Rarely has anyone demonstrated so clearly that patience pays: managers with big jobs to do need time and support to succeed.

Much criticism accompanied his arrival at Old Trafford in 1987 and, during his first few years there, he was accused of failing to perform. Without a patient board, Ferguson would have been another manager out on his ear.

Since then his team has won almost every competition going. The values established by that track record have helped to inject a new potency into a brand that was already strong. This, coupled with the shrewd appointment of professional businessmen, has turned the club into a licence to print money.

United is now more than a football club; it is an entertainment business. Sales of shirts, posters and other merchandise helped produce profits of £28 million last year on turnover of £88 million. That is just the beginning. It has only scratched the surface of an international market.

But the biggest potential is in the world of television. As part of the Premier League, United already has a lucrative deal with SkyTV and it has even launched its own television channel.

However unpalatable the purists may find it, the proposed Murdoch takeover is a natural extension of a process that has already started. In the US and Continental Europe, joint ownership of media and sports clubs is long-established. The MMC should allow the deal.

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