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Commentary: Manchester United is a joke even to Elon Musk

When the Tesla and SpaceX mogul tweeted he was buying the struggling Premier League club, frustrated supporters briefly hoped against hope he was serious, says Bloomberg Opinion’s Gearoid Reidy.

Commentary: Manchester United is a joke even to Elon Musk

File photo of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Photo: AFP/File/Odd Andersen)

TOKYO: As the old football saying goes, it’s the hope that kills you. 

Fans of Manchester United may have briefly wished that Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, might actually have been serious when he tweeted he was buying the storied but stumbling English football club

He wasn’t, of course - perhaps forgetting that as well as holding a record 20 top division titles, the club also trades on the New York Stock Exchange as Manchester United Plc. The last thing Musk needs is more trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Tesla co-founder who has gotten into hot water with regulators owing to a penchant to tweet most anything to his 100 million Twitter followers, would have been a controversial owner, no doubt.

But despite being one of the few professional sports teams in any league with a truly global fan base - including your correspondent in Tokyo, as well as a boyhood Musk - Manchester United are now a shambles on the pitch.

Manchester United fans protested against the club's owners, the Glazer family, during a 4-0 defeat to Brentford (Photo: AFP/Ian Kington)

Fans are in dire need of some good news. The club has lost both games so far in the Premier League season, including last week’s 4-0 drubbing by lowly Brentford; it’s nearly 10 years since it won a league title. 

That makes even Musk look like a better alternative as steward than the children of the late Malcolm Glazer, who bought the club in a controversial leveraged buyout in 2005.

ELON MUSK WEALTH WOULD BE WELCOME

So let’s indulge it for a moment: What might an Elon Musk takeover of Manchester United actually have looked like? 

Musk is rich, of course, at least as long as Tesla’s share price holds up.

With Chelsea Football Club selling for about US$5.2 billion, Musk could probably have picked up United (which currently has an enterprise value of US$2.7 billion) with the money made from the Tesla stock he sold last week - assuming a US court doesn’t force him to buy Twitter - with change left over to buy a striker to replace Cristiano Ronaldo.

With the club scrambling to buy players to help embattled new manager Erik ten Hag, an injection of cash would be welcome.

And just think of the potential synergies with Tesla products: Musk has yet to demonstrate a moving version of his forthcoming Optimus robot, but even a static bot would likely be an improvement in midfield on Scott McTominay.

SPENDING ON PLAYERS AND MANAGERS HAVE NOT LED TO SUCCESS

But the problem with the Glazers isn’t, as fans often complain, that they haven’t spent enough. The problem is with how they’ve spent it. More than US$1 billion has been splurged on players in the last decade; almost all of them have been failures. 

Since Alex Ferguson’s glittering 27-year reign came to an end in 2013, United have changed course on managers over and over in an attempt to chase short-term glory.

David Moyes was given a six-year contract to succeed Ferguson and sacked after 10 months. That was followed by allowing Louis van Gaal two years to demolish and rebuild the team, before ignominiously dumping him just as he was starting to win.

Jose Mourinho, his replacement in 2016, was a failure anyone could see coming - he had just recently been fired from the very same job at Chelsea. In July 2021, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was given a new contract and then shown the door just five months later. And on and on it goes. 

For all Musk’s flaws, a lack of long-term vision isn’t one of them. Tesla and SpaceX do things that others once deemed impossible. And surely he couldn’t have done that without hiring top executives, something the Glazers have been abysmal at. 

CONTROVERSIAL FOOTBALL CLUB OWNERS

And Musk likely wouldn’t be the most provocative owner in the world - or even the Premier League, which is rife with controversial proprietors and sportswashing suspicions.

Newcastle United was taken over in 2021 by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, just three years on from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The spending of Manchester City, owned by United Arab Emirates Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour, has attracted nearly as much attention as their on-field success. 

The US owners who make up more than half the Premier League mostly seem to be in it for return on capital, when what fans want is usually unlimited spending and ambition. A wave of Chinese buying of European clubs in the mid-2010’s raised eyebrows, though has largely been dialed back. 

Whether Musk would have passed the “fit and proper person” test for English football ownership is a question we will - for now - be able to avoid answering.

But with United next set to face rival Liverpool, to whom they lost by an aggregate 9-0 across two games last season, forgive fans for hoping Musk’s tweet inspires another benevolent billionaire

Source: Bloomberg/ch

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