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The battle for Manchester United explained

By James Montague, CNN
  • David Beckham highlights struggle for ownership at Manchester United
  • Fans launch "green and gold" protest aginst American owner Malcolm Glazer
  • Pressure may lead to new, "fan-friendly" owners called the Red Knights
  • Yet revenues, profits and trophy count rise under Glazer

London, England (CNN) -- Ever since American Malcolm Glazer -- best known as the man who bankrolls the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise -- bought English Premier League side Manchester United in 2005, his tenure has been marked by dissent from the team's fans.

When the move was finalized five years ago, effigies of the Glazer family -- both his sons Avram and Joel are co-chairmen at the club -- were burnt outside the team's stadium.

Anti-Glazer banners have been displayed at Old Trafford home games ever since. Opposition has been vocal despite the fact United have won three domestic league titles and a European Champions League under the Glazer tenure. So why are the fans complaining?

Future bright for clubs united by Glazer

The unhappiness stems, largely, from the fact the Glazer family had to borrow money to buy the club. Overnight Manchester United -- who according to Forbes Magazine is the most valuable team in world sport with a value of $1.8 billion -- went from being in the black to over $1.1billion in debt.

"There are two big problems: bank debt and fees," explains Andrew Green, a fund manager who advises the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), a fan group leading the protests against the Glazer regime.

According to the club's own financial report the owners received $30 million in management fees and loans since 2006 prompting Green to add: "All the ticket price rises have gone straight out of the door."

The hike in season ticket prices proved unpopular, but the move combined with increased sponsorship and television money, contributed to a 19 percent rise in revenue (worth $218 million) for the last six months of 2009.

But the club's decision to raise $753 million via a bond issue to help ease the club's burgeoning interest payments prompted a hardening of opposition amongst fans.

Video: Red Knights confirm Man U bid

To add to the banners and songs, MUST asked fans to adopt the green and gold colors of Newton Heath (the nineteenth century team from which Manchester United evolved) as a way of symbolizing a growing disconnect between owners and supporters.

Since then, Old Trafford has been a sea of green and gold scarves.

As much as you can wave a green and gold scarf, you're not hurting the owners financially
--Andrew Green, MUST

Riding on the crest of this wave of fan ill-feeling, a consortium of wealthy Manchester United fans dubbed the "Red Knights" have gone public with their intentions to buy the club from the Americans.

The Red Knights -- who are led by Goldman Sachs' chief economist Jim O'Neill -- say they will give supporters a greater say in the running of the club if the takeover were ever successful.

Consequently, the group have urged fans to join MUST -- whose membership has exploded from a few thousand to almost 150,000 since January -- and to boycott the renewal of their season tickets.

At the heart of the current power struggle is the issue of how much power and influence supporters should have in the running of their teams.

MUST points to the success of clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, whose members hold the club's president to account through democratic elections. In the German Bundesliga clubs are governed by the "50+1" rule, a law which states that over 50 percent of the club must be owned by a membership organization.

"We want to stop this ever happening again [to Manchester United]...we need a blocking stake in the hands of the supporters," says Green. "You can't buy clubs like Real or Barca no matter how much money you have. Those clubs couldn't be bought in leveraged buyouts. A 25 percent stake, held in trust, is important."

Others point to the success of the current model of governance. "Decisions for the past 20 years have been made by the people that own the club. It's swift and efficient but vested in private interests," Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing at Coventry University, told CNN.

"Fan ownership will be open and democratic [but] it can't be swift. Take the guy who works for Goldman Sachs [Jim O'Neill]. They don't ask their customers what they will do, they just do it. But here, the fans will have a say. It's not insurmountable, but it won't happen over night. It could take years."

The Glazers, thus far, have stated unequivocally the club is not for sale despite the Red Knights appointing Japanese investment bank Nomura to help with their bid. But the fans could yet have a major say in the future of the club by boycotting their season tickets and cutting one of the main streams of income for the Glazers' business model.

"There is an opportunity now. The Red Knights need to be on board and it's controversial going on strike but as much as you can wave a green and gold scarf, you are not hurting the owners financially," explains Green.

"Can we have an effective boycott? I was at the Milan game and the place looked ungovernable in second half. If you took that energy, we could do it. But if we don't get rid of the Glazers now, the protests will be dead this time next year."