Moneybox

Could Elon Musk Wreck Manchester United Like He’s Wrecked Twitter?

Oh yes, he definitely could.

Elon Musk points up while speaking from a stage with a black background.
Preparing to say he’s buying something, probably. Jim Watson/Getty Images

Usually when someone blows off some steam in the evening by announcing they are going to buy a sports team, they are not actually going to buy said team. They’re just angry, because whoever does own the team has mismanaged it in some manner, much to the chagrin of the would-be purchaser, who in almost every case lacks the financial clout necessary to buy a sports franchise. Similarly, when someone muses about buying a publicly traded company because it pisses them off, they are probably not going to buy the company, which costs a lot of money. Various regulatory authorities may also not like the concept of someone with clear market-moving ability issuing a whimsical statement that they’ll buy such a company.

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On Tuesday evening, Elon Musk tweeted, “Also, I’m buying Manchester United ur welcome.” He is probably not going to do that, just as he was not going to take Tesla private and just as he is now in a legal fight to avoid making another purchase he thought he wanted to make but very much did not. The long-range outcome of Musk’s saga with Twitter will not resolve until some time around their trial in October, but the short-term effect has been obvious: Everyone at Twitter is miserable. Musk’s attempt to weasel out of his $44 billion deal has done predictably bad things to Twitter’s stock price, and the will-he-or-won’t-he of it all has tanked morale inside this giant, publicly traded firm. Twitter’s lawyers have admitted how bad it is: “No public company of this size and scale has ever had to bear these uncertainties,” they have quite reasonably complained to the Delaware court that will hear the case.

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You can see where this is heading: Elon Musk is going to do the most valuable soccer team in England like he did Twitter. He is going to destroy what remains of Manchester United from the inside.

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Or he isn’t. But bear with me. Because neither you nor I were born two minutes ago, we can acknowledge that while Musk is absolutely just being obnoxious here, there’s at least a 15 percent chance that he continues to the point of filing paperwork with more details of his bid. So here we are.

United are, like Twitter and Tesla, a publicly traded entity. As I write this, you can buy a share in the club for a little less than $13. The club’s market capitalization is a shade over $2 billion. Actually buying Manchester United would cost a good deal more, because sports teams are weird businesses and the Glazer family, which controls the club, would not sell for a nonpremium price. Forbes gives United a $4.6 billion valuation, only behind La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona (which, by the way, has issues). Let’s say that Musk is really bored this week and decides to approach United’s board with an offer he figures they can’t refuse. Perhaps he writes down $9 billion and slides the piece of paper across the table. That would make sense, because it’s a nonsense number that he’d fight tooth and nail to never pay, but a big enough one that United’s bosses would probably take it seriously on the basis of loving money.

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Musk got Twitter’s board to dance with him by preying on their fiduciary obligation to Twitter’s shareholders. The board is supposed to get its shareholders the best deal, and so despite ample evidence that Musk was a snake, they allowed him to slither into their house and sign a deal to buy Twitter at $54.20 per share, much higher than the stock had been trading. There is a good case out there that Twitter’s board is made up of people who do not understand Twitter and were missing out on a chance to make it something even more valuable, but whatever. That was the idea. And it may work out just fine for Twitter, depending on what happens in Delaware.

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What happens if Musk tries to blow the United board out of the water with a huge offer, because he’s looking for things to do between now and his Twitter trial? Well, one obstacle is that the Glazers (who also own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers) own most of the shares in Manchester United. One of the things you’ll notice if you check out United’s roster of board members is that six of the 11 people on it have the “Glazer” in their name. This is mostly their show, and if the Glazers decide they are not interested in having a protracted legal battle with Musk once he’s moved onto his next fascination, I am pretty sure (?) that nobody will have a great way to compel them to deal with him.

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But! The Glazers are seemingly far more motivated by dollar signs than notions of tradition or pageantry that might lead them to ignore a silly offer for their team. They were among the owners who got into bed with the doomed European Super League in 2021, the attempt to nuke Europe’s premier club competition in service of concentrated broadcast rights fees for United and a few of its rich peers. United supporters have had quite a few grievances with the family since it bought up a controlling stake in the 2000s. Chants to the effect of “Die Glazer, die!” have rained down at Old Trafford before.

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All of it is to say: Musk may not have to send a horse head to the Glazers’ bed. Everyone has a number. And if Musk is in the right mood for long enough, then hey: Maybe some business can be done. Unloading United would mean not getting yelled at so much and also, in a nice twist, making the club’s significant debts someone else’s problem. So let’s see how long Musk stays distracted.

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From there, we’d be off to the races. It’s not entirely clear to me how a dalliance with Musk would lead to the cratering of United’s business and football operations, but somehow, it would happen. Here’s one entry in a nonexhaustive list of methods Musk could pursue to burn United to the ground.

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Perhaps Musk can juice United’s stock price a bit with an onslaught of statements about how he plans to buy the team. The mechanics of that are a little cloudy, sure. The Glazers control most of the shares, and prices don’t go up because of Musk’s tweets—at least not exactly. They go up because people are buying the stock (which they might do because of Musk’s tweets). Maybe the Glazers see a chance to sell a few shares at a premium and make some of the club’s debt go away. They have sold stock recently enough.

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Anyway, as they say, line go up. Emboldened by the enhanced stock price, the Glazers sell still more shares, while retaining control of the club. They use the proceeds to do what Manchester United do: buy expensive players who do not turn out to be that good. (Or they just pocket the proceeds and pump nothing into the club.) Musk keeps up the full-court press in public, and eventually he strikes up a deal to buy the whole boat for around that made-up $9 billion figure. The Glazers follow the news, so they make sure the contract is ironclad. Musk has to follow through.

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Of course, he does not, at least not right away. Two weeks go by. Musk watches United lose a couple of matches, which seems like it’ll be a customary thing this year. (They have started 0-2 with the worst goal differential in the Premier League.) He decides he’d like to buy something else instead. It could be anything. Meanwhile, an extensive legal battle begins between Musk and the Glazers. The stock price tanks, at least as much as it can tank when the main buyer and seller are at loggerheads. (It’s not like the stock never moves. It trades enough, even with the Glazers’ dominance, to move a bit.)

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Morale at Old Trafford goes the same way it did at Twitter HQ. Both the Glazers and Musk claim that the other is now responsible for paying player wages, so neither does. Cristiano Ronaldo is forced to forage for food and put his children into public school. Cutbacks lead to worse accommodations at the club’s training facility. United gets relegated to the second division of English football and misses out on tens of millions of dollars in TV money while seeing its other core revenue lines take a huge hit.

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Much later, a court forces Musk to buy the club anyway. He makes Tesla the primary kit sponsor, which bothers Tesla shareholders because of United’s increasingly toxic brand. Tesla shares drop over fears that Musk is too focused on his new soccer team and not properly dialed in on electric vehicles. Musk responds by selling United, somehow for a profit, to a new owner. He becomes a hero to United fans (at least the males aged 18 to 34) for selflessly stepping aside for the good of the team. And to demonstrate how much he cares, the electric vehicle magnate’s handpicked buyer for United is a sovereign wealth fund from the gulf. I mean, could you imagine?

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