Manchester United’s debt, analysed

The article uses last available financial disclosures of the club as at 30th June, 2007 (download document (PDF) here). The words “current/currently” reflect opinion/fact with the same timeline in backdrop. All figures are in million pounds.

The author is a financial analyst.

It has been some time that people have been talking about a financial crisis in-the-making at Old Trafford. There are also those who insist we are already seeing one. The team, however, is doing extremely well on the pitch. That suggests, at least from a financial point of view (perhaps not conclusively though), that players are happy with their wages. After all, the club spent 74m on wages and salaries in 2006-07 (majority of which must have gone to players).

Even football clubs like Manchester United can hardly rely on money from T-shirts, posters or footballs — they really have to sell football — in the ground and on the TV. For Manchester United that makes up ¾ of their revenue which is showing excellent growth (30% year-on-year). Compared to previous year, the administration has done a great job in keeping a lid on operating expenses (despite the widespread belief that Manchester United uses a Russian cheque book too). The club has grown from a position of gross loss (persistent gross loss is an outright indicator of a failed business model) to a modest gross profit.

This is all good. But here comes a mighty financial challenge (note: I do not want to carelessly use the word “crisis”). The club incurred financial costs of 81m. That is more than what the club has paid the people who make this club — the ground staff, administration and of course players. This is, at least in an academic sense, a highly inefficient and unsustainable cost structure. But there are worse and more practical issues here.

Despite closing the acquisition transaction in the preceding year, the club incurred more debt and re-profiled existing loans this year. Pricing that Manchester United has received from financiers is not going to make things any easier. And given the deteriorating financial health of the club, overall credit tightening and the very nature of the risk financial institutions have taken on red devil’s football, finance costs will only increase.

If you doubt that then there is one simple explanation I can give.

The collateral offered to financial institutions is 425m of “first fixed and floating charge over fixed assets”. A charge is a piece of paper that gives legal claim to bankers over collateral in an event of default. But Manchester United only has 252m of tangible assets, the rest are largely intangible. In other words, this acquisition exposes banks more than Glazers themselves. The Glazers simply bought the club on bankers’ wallet, and if push comes to shove, they will handover the “soccer club” to banks, endure manageable loss, swim back home and watch “football clubs” play in America. Now wouldn’t a bank squeeze every penny out of Manchester United after taking such a risk on it?

Let us say, my view so far has been very subjective. Then let us look at some crisp objective facts. Financial institutions do not like to keep their credit lines evergreen for corporate customers unless the business model is one of low risk (e.g. a heavily regulated power utility). One day all banks will ask Manchester United to repay the principal amount which currently stands at 666m.

A very dirty (read: conservative) multiple of debt-to-free cash flow (using current figures for both debt and free cash flow) stands easily above 25x! This is too high, even with all the grace period in debt maturity schedule. Going forward, this multiple must come down or the club will be at mercy of financial institutions (whether or not they agree to rollover). What are the possible ways of doing it?

  • Stop piling more debt – not possible until the club makes enough operating income to at least repay its finance costs i.e. interest cover above 1x. Currently, this ratio stands at 0.23x.
  • Continue to post solid revenue growth e.g. at least at least 15-odd % each year. Keep up the branding. Media money is all about that. There is a reason why TV in Malaysia will not pay 2 cents for covering a Derby match.
  • Win competitions. Duh!
  • Become more efficient i.e. increase its operating margin. The current 9-odd % is not going to work.
  • Buy like Wenger, not like Abramovich. The club does not have financial liberty as many would think.

A 194m accumulated loss on the balance sheet has reduced Glazer’s equity to only 80m (year-on-year 42% decline). This is alarming. Imagine, if loss in financial year 2008 is going to be anything above 80m (2006 loss: 135m; and let us say, Glazers don’t bring in more money from America), the club will have negative equity. In English that means bankruptcy for Manchester United where banks are involved. For clubs where no banks are involved, and Russians are involved, negative equity does not matter because the owner pays for his hobby, not the banks.

Even in the beginning of the article I clearly said, this is a challenge and not a crisis. One has to understand the buyout of Manchester United. These leveraged acquisitions, a couple of years back when things were not as bad, were in fashion. Financial institutions make good money in these. Where time is merciful enough to pan things out more or less the same way as those Excel sheets suggested in investment banks when the deals are struck, the equity investors (like Glazers) in these deals make money for their generations to come.

But huge risks are involved. There are too many assumptions, from the club itself to the economy at large. If you ask me in a nutshell if Manchester United is heading for a serious financial crisis — I will say it is not so certain at the moment. Glazers should really kneel down and thank the outstanding team and some great fans who continue to buy season tickets despite $120+ crude oil and a terribly confused Brown-Darling-King tripod.

The greatest positive surrounding all of this is the debt profile — the club does not really repay any principal in the next 5 years. That is a good breathing space. But even then, for this Glazer deal to let Manchester United live, this club needs to grow really badly. Did not we all think Manchester United is an enormous club? Size is relative. You are only as big as your debt makes you look.

Also see:

Football Debt, Spiralling Wages and the future of European Football
Chelsea FC’s financial accounts and understanding Roman Abramovich

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