Football finance experts have warned Manchester United that their status as the world’s most valuable club will not last if they continue to trail behind their main rivals on the pitch.
Last May, the club’s vice-chairman Ed Woodward told shareholders that United can make money regardless of results.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” he said shortly after a season that saw United finish 19 points behind Manchester City in the league, lose the FA Cup Final to Chelsea, get dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Bristol City and fall in the Champions League’s first knock-out round to Sevilla.
Eight months on and United are still generating huge revenues but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are no longer the top dogs in that regard, as years of relative failure in the Premier League and Champions League starts to bite.
On Thursday, Deloitte published their 22nd Football Money League report, which ranks the world’s biggest clubs by how much they earned from broadcasting, commercial deals and matchday revenues last season.
Having held top spot for two years, United were knocked off their perch by Real Madrid and slipped to third place behind Barcelona.
Buoyed by their third straight Champions League win, Real earned £665.2million, £85.5m more than a year before and £75.2m more than United’s £590m.
All the British clubs were slightly affected by a three per cent year-on-year decline in the value of sterling against the euro, but the real reasons for United’s fall were football results and the Spanish giants’ booming commercial income.
Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool, told Press Association Sport: “Manchester United are paying the price for failing to progress far in the Champions League last season.
“Real Madrid earned £77m, Barcelona £50m but United only £35m after being knocked out in the last 16 and having a lower earning coefficient for qualifying via winning the Europa League the previous season rather than the top four of the Premier League.
“United’s income should bounce back in 2018/19 due to the sleeve sponsorship deal with Kohler and a change in how UEFA distribute money to clubs, which takes into account a club’s European progress over 10 years.
“But despite Ed Woodward’s claim that the club doesn’t need to win matches to generate income, United’s slick commercial department may be struggling to keep up with the likes of Real, Barca and Bayern Munich, who are all regular winners.”
Dr Rob Wilson, who runs the sports business management course at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees with Maguire and believes United cannot continue to rely on the lustre of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, when they won 13 Premier League titles in 21 years and two Champions League crowns.
The last of those came in 2008, although they were runners-up to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. Since then, however, United’s Champions League record has been poor, failing to get out of the group stage twice, losing in the round of 16 twice and missing out on European football altogether in 2014/15.
On the positive side, they did win the Europa League under Jose Mourinho in 2017.
“All of the evidence suggests there is an inextricable link between financial and sporting performance,” Wilson told Press Association Sport.
“United have grown their revenues but I’m convinced they would have grown further had they been more successful on the pitch. In their defence, they tore up the rule book when they signed with Adidas and have pioneered record-breaking, big-ticket sponsorships.
“As part of this, they signed long deals and can’t renegotiate just yet. That means other clubs chase their benchmark and catch them.
“If they perform better on the field I expect the re-negotiations to break records and they will rediscover their place at the top of the chart.”
But Wilson cites a relatively recent, and nearby, example of what can happen if a once successful club endures a long rebuilding period.
“The Liverpool comparison is very real. United would have expected a moderate dip post-Ferguson but if it continues much longer we will see exactly that,” he said.
“The Premier League is very competitive – at the top, at least – which means clubs can outgrow others quite quickly. A good run in the Champions League, like Liverpool’s last season, adds £70m to the pot.”
Liverpool, now top of the Premier League and chasing a first English title since 1990, increased their turnover by £90m last year and climbed two spots in the Deloitte table to seventh.
It is understood United are relaxed about their position in the various ‘rich lists’ that are produced these days, but it is equally true they were very proud of being named the “most valuable soccer brand” by Forbes business magazine last summer.
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