More than their fair share?

Richard Lander explains how Manchester United supporters are attempting to resist the proposed sale of the club to BSkyB

Behind the tears and the sentiment, the goodies and the baddies – and not least, the £87 million set to be trousered by Martin Edwards – the real problem with Sky’s bid for Manchester United is a clash of business interests that threatens the heart and soul of football.

That’s why we – at core a bunch of United-since-birth exiles (few Cockney Reds here) – formed Shareholders United Against Murdoch (SUAM), to act as a lightning rod for committed shareholders’ anger about the Sky deal and to ensure that this passion is directed constructively and aligns with the equally heartfelt views of the independent supporters’ association, IMUSA.

We’ve not done badly so far. Thanks to an anonymous donation (maybe it was Rupert Murdoch having a chuckle) we’ve mailed every one of United’s 28,000 shareholders spelling out our reasons why the bid must be rejected. The response was amazing – hundreds of emails and letters from all over the globe pledging full support.

Our ranks include bankers and lawyers, accountants and advertising men, actors and university professors, secretaries and lorry-drivers, even a croupier, a fish farmer and a vicar. Perhaps the most poignant name is Alan Embling, great-nephew and heir of James Gibson, the forgotten saviour of Manchester United. It was James Gibson who rescued the club from bankruptcy in the 1930s, and then as chairman rebuilt Old Trafford after the war and appointed Matt Busby in 1945. “My uncle would have said it’s just plain greedy,” says Embling, who has committed his family’s remaining 18,000 shares against the bid.

At one time the Gibson family were the biggest shareholders in the club, owning more than 40 per cent of the stock, but Alan Embling’s cousin Alan Gibson – James Gibson’s son – sold the bulk of his shares to the Edwards family in two separate deals in the Sixties and Seventies. The first sale came when Gibson needed money to look after his disabled wife; the second when he had to pay a big bill for death duties. lf they’d resisted the Edwards charm, then today the family would be worth more than £250 million.

As shareholders and supporters there are many reasons why the bid is bad news for the club – not least because Mr Murdoch will use United as a cash cow to fund his plans to dominate digital television. Who’ll win when Sky needs another £20 million to market its digital decoders and Fergie needs £20 million for a new striker? Have a guess… But for everyone who loves football (and yes, that also means the few of you out there who hate United), the heart of the matter is the conflict of interest  –  and that’s why BSkyB’s bid should be blocked by the Office of Fair Trading and Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson, and sent for a thorough inquiry by the Monopolies Commission.

Right now, Sky owns all the live TV rights to the Premier League until 2001. It has already used the power this brings to wreak tremendous changes on the English game, some good, some bad. One the most obvious bad ones is the way fixtures are changed willy-nilly to suit Sky’s TV schedules rather than the lives of the fans. Yet it has brought a huge amount of money into the game which has allowed decrepit stadiums to be updated and footballing idols to be overpaid beyond their wildest dreams.

Having ownership of the hardware end of the business Mr Murdoch now wants to own the biggest-selling software product – Manchester United. In one sense, this is insurance in case he loses the Premier League rights in 2001, or the Restrictive Practices Court deems the League’s collective bargaining position to be illegal. If that happens, so much the better; Mr Murdoch would simply move his seat from one side of he business table to the other.

Let’s assume it doesn’t, and that come 2002 Sky still has the lion’s share of the Premier League TV rights while owning United. The penetration of Sky’s sports channels – via digital transmission of various means – is far greater than today and millions of fans can watch a range of live games every Sunday in the comfort of their homes, either on pay-per-view or through the purchase of digital season tickets.

Let’s consider a couple of scenarios that might arise: Manchester United are playing Liverpool on the Sunday before Christmas. In partnership with McDonalds, Sky launches a “Meet Ryan Giggs” competition. Youngsters have to call in to answer a question about the player that pops up on the digital screen when he touches the ball for the first time. The bad news is that Giggs has pulled a hamstring and manager Brian Kidd says he’s unfit to play. The United chairman Elisabeth Murdoch (Rupe’s daughter who runs Sky in Britain) tells Kidd that Sky will drop a load in lost advertising revenue if Giggs doesn’t appear and the viewing numbers drop. “Play him,” she says, “or your days are numbered, Brian.” Giggs plays, he badly aggravates his injury, United lose, Kidd resigns. But at least the promotion was a huge success.

The next season, Sky inject another £100 million into United to give manager George Graham (the only taker for the job after Kidd’s acrimonious departure) the firepower to buy three of Europe’s finest players. United are now so strong that by February they are 23 points clear of the pack. Interest in the title chase is waning and TV audiences are plummeting.

Elisabeth Murdoch has a chat with the Arsenal chairman Michael Green when they meet at a charity dinner, and agrees to sell him three United players to make things a bit more even. George Graham reads about the deal in the Sun the following day and resigns. The FA official who promises a full investigation is exposed in the News of the World as a transvestite. Ms Murdoch issues a statement that she really doesn’t see the necessity for a managerial successor and the team will be picked by her in future.

Far fetched? Don’t kid yourself. The pernicious influence of outside business interests are already appearing in football – it’s more than likely that team sponsor Nike were keener (putting it delicately) than the Brazilian football team management to have a crocked Ronaldo play in the World Cup final.

The nightmare scenario is that football ends up like Form-ula One motor racing, where officially encouraged team driver selections and scrutineers’ decisions seem more weighted to producing a closer battle between Ferrari and McLaren than might otherwise happen, all in the interests of maximizing TV revenue.

This is not just about football losing its roots as a sport and becoming a business. That began years ago with flotations, executive boxes and superstores pushing out the mill-owning chairman, freezing terraces and toilet facilities last seen in the World War One trenches. The real issue is about safeguards to prevent a complete industry from being subject to the undue influence of one corporate entity. That industry could be chemicals, construction or computing.

SUAM’s task now is not just to lobby the politicians, but also the big City institutions, the insurance companies and pension funds who own around 60 per cent of United shares. City whizz-kids may love football themselves, but legally they can only decide whether to sell or not on financial grounds. With a flagging Stock Market, there’s a strong temptation to make a quick killing to cover their losses elsewhere, but the financial arguments to hold onto the shares are stronger still. All the serious published analysis into pay-per-view and the European super league suggests both should be real gold mines for big clubs like United.

Greg Dyke, the only United director to oppose the deal, argued that the club was potentially worth three times as much as the £624 million that Murdoch is offering. And Dyke knows his stuff. As a former boss of LWT, and a veteran of past breakaway threats and TV right negotiations, few men know more than Dyke about the value of live football.

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month