In the spring of 2005, as the Glazer family attempted to push through their £790million leveraged buyout of Manchester United, a meeting was held in London at the offices of the investment bank Cazenove.
There, three of Florida-based tycoon Malcolm Glazer’s sons — Joel, Avram and Bryan — talked to members of United’s board of directors, with each side also bringing an army of advisors. Several meetings had taken place in the preceding months, but this was, by some distance, the largest yet and many of those present were being introduced to each other for the first time.
The three Glazers were keen to make an impression.
“The brothers all trooped into the room and wanted to show us their Super Bowl rings,” says one figure at the meeting who, as with all sources to speak for this article, did so anonymously to protect relationships.
These 14-carat gold rings, which commemorated the Glazers-owned Tampa Bay Buccaneers becoming NFL champions for the first time two years earlier, were each encrusted with more than 50 diamonds. One attendee at the meeting recalls each of the rings looking like one-fifth of a knuckle duster.
Manchester United and Tampa Bay Buccaneers bid for glory under the Glazers
To openly show them off was brash and ostentatious, yet it revealed a degree of pride in sporting achievement that has rarely been evident during their 18-year reign at Old Trafford.
“Fair’s fair, they had won the Super Bowl,” one source says. “They were very proud of that.”
It also provided an insight into what it is like to deal with a very rich, very successful but intensely private family who, through almost two decades of diminishing returns on the pitch at United, have tended to get their way off it.
That desire for control and to keep things within the family raises obvious questions as the Glazers prepare to give up a significant proportion of the club and sell a 25 per cent minority stake to Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS group, handing over the reins of United’s football department in the process.
How far will INEOS’ influence over sporting matters extend? How will it be organised and arranged? Could the Glazers, as majority owners, simply end such an arrangement at any time they please?
Those are all relevant questions.
The level of boardroom control being given up by the Glazers remains unclear and it will depend on the structure of the INEOS shareholding. United’s shares are split into Class A and Class B categories. Class B shares hold 10 times the voting power of Class A ones. The Class B shares are exclusively held by the Glazers and, importantly, they are normally converted to Class A if sold by the family.
If, as expected, INEOS’ bid is a 50-50 split between Class A and Class B, then their 25 per cent stake is unlikely to equate to more than five per cent of the voting power at board level.
That will not be a problem as long as Ratcliffe and the Glazers get along. Until, suddenly, they don’t.
Yet Ratcliffe has done what no other business person has managed for nearly two decades by sitting around a negotiating table with the Glazers and convincing them to give up a considerable share of United.
He now knows what is like to deal with the Glazers…
In 2005, United was a publicly listed company, and its shares were openly traded on the London Stock Exchange every day. As less than two per cent of those shares were in the hands of board members themselves, there was little they could do to directly block a bid.
So why were the three brothers so eager to impress United’s board and their advisors?
The Glazers needed their approval. If the board were willing to recommend a prospective offer to the club’s other shareholders, their takeover attempt would not be viewed as hostile, and the banks and hedge funds supplying the family’s £540million ($673m at today’s rates) in financing would remain onside.
A charm offensive was required from the start and their relative success as owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers formed a key plank of the Glazers’ dealings with the board.
The previous September, while still trying to gauge the family’s intentions, United executives visited Florida.
They were treated to a tour of the Buccaneers’ training facility and their 66,000-seater Raymond James Stadium, where their attention was drawn to a board outside displaying the length of the waiting list for season tickets.
“They thought that experience of running a successful NFL team was relevant to exploiting the commercial value of Manchester United,” says one source.
A lunch was arranged with Malcolm Glazer and his wife Linda at their home in Palm Beach but United officials returned to the UK believing the family patriarch’s interest in football was next to non-existent. Instead, his sons had led the way.
Of the younger generation, Joel made the greatest impression on those representing and advising United during the process. Avram was second in command, also the one most across the financial details and most enthusiastic about football. Bryan presented himself as an expert on all things commercial.
Those pre-takeover meetings are remembered as “perfectly cordial”, according to one source familiar with them. While others who only met the Glazers later in the process found them to be quiet and unremarkable personalities, those who visited the family in Florida thought they were reasonable, approachable and, above all, polite.
“When you take a big stake in a listed company it is a hostile act, but they weren’t rude people,” says another source who dealt with them during the process. “They were nice to us because they wanted us to recommend their bid.”
And at times when the Glazers were more aggressive in their approach, even that was simply viewed as just business.
The debt, dividends and deals – the Glazers’ Man United ownership by numbers
For example, at United’s annual general meeting the following November, after the board had publicly denounced the level of debt involved in the Glazers’ proposal as “not being in the best interests of the company”, the family responded by voting off three directors: Maurice Watkins, United’s long-serving director and legal mind, lost his position alongside Philip Yea and Andy Anson.
The Glazers sent representatives from law firm Allen & Overy as proxies to deliver their votes, given the number of supporters that would be present and the anti-Glazer sentiment already rising within the fanbase.
As journalist Mihir Bose notes in his book Manchester Disunited, a detailed account of the takeover, United even assisted the proxies’ attempts to avoid the fans’ attention by allowing them to cast their votes before the meeting and sit at the very front of the room, so they could slip out early into an unmarked van that had kept its engine running.
As evidenced by their facilitation of the move against the board, there was no moral objection to the Glazers’ tactics among the United officials.
“What rights have you got as a shareholder? Not a lot,” one person familiar with the club at that time points out. “You can demand meetings or you can vote against resolutions at AGMs. They were the only powers they had until they got control of the club and so they exercised those powers to show they were serious.”
The Glazers’ proposal priced the club at £3 per share — close to £800million in total and above its market valuation. Naturally, senior Old Trafford figures wondered how they would hope to bridge that gap and make their money back once they got through the door.
Some of their ideas were unconventional. One mentioned in those initial meetings but quickly dropped was a “fantasy package”, offering high net-worth individuals the opportunity to train with the first-team squad at Carrington if they paid millions of pounds to do so.
Other concepts were treated with just as much scepticism but, in hindsight, have proved to be prescient. The Glazers’ confidence in their investment largely came from their belief that English football’s broadcasting revenues would soar over the subsequent decades.
Those representing United viewed that as overly optimistic at the time. Not anymore. “They were 100 per cent right — or 250 per cent right,” one admits. “As irritating as it is.”
Even then, long before their key role in the aborted European Super League launch in 2021, the Glazers were questioning the Premier League’s collective distribution of television money. The overriding message throughout was that content is king. “That was the single thing they kept saying,” according to one source.
And despite the board’s doubts, this long-term view at least persuaded some that the Glazers were not simply private equity sharks looking to flip the club at a profit to make a quick buck.
That was still not enough for the board to recommend their offer wholeheartedly, though. That was seen as impossible as long as the question of the debt remained.
During the meeting at Cazenove’s offices, that question was raised once more — specifically, what happens if a Glazer-run United failed to keep up with the terms of their lending agreements? The answer was a troubling one. “They simply turned to the man on the end of the row and said, ‘He’ll own the business’.”
That man was a representative of one of the three Wall Street hedge funds from which the Glazers would borrow £275million to fund their takeover — Citadel, Perry Capital and Och-Ziff Management.
The very real prospect of the club being lost in such a manner meant the board could not endorse the offer, while the fury that a recommendation would bring from fans was also on their mind. On the other hand, rejecting the Glazers’ proposal outright ran the risk of the other shareholders threatening legal action for not being granted the opportunity to accept a reasonable offer.
A compromise was reached. The board would conclude that the price the Glazers were offering was fair but they would not explicitly recommend the offer to shareholders.
One of the Rothschild & Co bankers working with the Glazers on the bid later claimed that if the board had refused to give any sort of recommendation, the financing would have collapsed and the deal would have been off.
“If the board simply said that they could not recommend it, it would be an ‘unfriendly’ bid but not a ‘hostile’ one,” Robert Leitao, still a non-executive director on United’s board, told Bose in Manchester Disunited. “As long as the negative was not there, the banks and hedge funds would stay and the bid was on.”
Without an explicit rejection from the board, the Glazers were free to make an offer that was quickly accepted by all but a few shareholders, the hold-outs mostly being supporters who had bought stock in the hope of blocking the bid themselves.
Anti-Glazer sentiment had never been much of a consideration for the family. “They thought they knew about fans and that all you had to do to satisfy them was win games,” says one source familiar with the talks. Eighteen years of sustained opposition to their running of United suggests otherwise.
Once the takeover was completed, the Glazers’ motivations became clear. Never mind the club’s record-breaking revenues up until that point, the family believed they could unlock what they perceived to be United’s untapped money-making potential. But again, there were ideas that did not get off the ground — in some cases, quite literally.
The Glazers’ desire to float a club-branded balloon through the streets of Manhattan as part of department store Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade was kiboshed because it would have cost more than three-quarters of United’s annual marketing budget.
Yet that was emblematic of a commercial approach — led by Bryan in those early days — that was a more flamboyant departure from the club’s previous way of doing business.
Under the old regime, United had struck up partnerships with brands they believed aligned with the club’s identity. Telecommunications company Vodafone was signed up as the main shirt sponsor because it was a recognised name offering an excellent price but also, its branding was red, matching the club’s kit.
The Glazers viewed the £9.5million per year front-of-shirt deal with Vodafone and the £22m a year kit manufacturing deal with Nike as undersells.
Some of their first meetings as United’s owners were with executives of the club’s two principal sponsors. And when Vodafone terminated its partnership two years early, a few months after the takeover, the Glazers’ message to a panicked commercial department was, “Don’t worry, we’re going to get a lot more than that.”
United ultimately replaced Vodafone by signing a four-year deal with AIG — described as a rocky ride, with the insurance firm struggling to meet payments in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but worth a record-breaking £56m at the time it was agreed.
Extracting the best price possible became the priority and in came a more aggressive approach to deal-making, and negotiations involving the siblings that could be unpredictable. One source recalls a United delegation entering a meeting regarding a potential sponsorship deal with a pre-agreed asking price in mind, only for one of the Glazer brothers to demand nearly twice as much out of nowhere.
This approach to doing business was not to everyone’s taste but even sceptics within the club came to accept that it was successful.
United’s commercial revenues stood at £45m a year prior to the takeover. A decade later, they had climbed to £189m and hit a peak of £302m last season, although have been surpassed by rivals Manchester City in each of the last three years.
Bryan had a key influence on the initial shift in United’s commercial strategy but the involvement of the Glazers’ third-eldest has waned since, leaving Joel and Avram to take the lead on day-to-day operations.
In the early years, it was not uncommon for all six siblings — Joel, Avram and Bryan, plus Darcie, Edward and Kevin — to attend board meetings in Florida. Darcie’s husband, Joel Kassewitz, would also sometimes be present and was not afraid to ask questions despite his relative inexperience in sports ownership. While some sources say that most of the siblings showed “zero interest” in United from the very start, others recall an initial enthusiasm that has dwindled.
What has remained consistent throughout is a reluctance to fully delegate responsibility to those beyond their immediate circle, even outside of the close family. When it comes to major decisions, one source sums up the process: “The Glazers would take it away, sit on it, discuss it as a family, and you would hear nothing for months.”
Staff responsible for ticketing at Old Trafford were once surprised to spend weeks preparing for a new campaign, only to have an email from Florida land in their inboxes declaring what the ticket prices for the coming season would be and instructing them to make the announcement.
The pace of negotiations will be all too familiar to Ratcliffe and INEOS, given almost a year has passed since the Glazers announced plans to identify “strategic alternatives” that could lead to a sale of the club.
Yet his days of dealing with the family are only just beginning.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)