Analysts: Dream on United fans, Glazers don't have to sell

CHICAGO - Manchester United fans hoping another group can buy the Premier League champions from the Glazers can stop dreaming, said analysts and bankers.

They stressed the American family does not need to sell one of the world's most valuable sports clubs despite heavy debts.

As the Glazers' spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday: "Manchester United is not for sale."

Fans and a group of investors called the 'Red Knights' who are pushing for a change in ownership are, they said, forgetting one thing - despite debts of 716.5 million pounds the Glazer family does not need to sell the club.

"It's a group of fans," one U.S. banker, who asked not to be identified, said of the Red Knights group that includes former English Football League chairman Keith Harris.

"You can't do a hostile takeover of a privately held enterprise, so what are they talking about? Why would the Glazers sell?" the banker said, calling the idea a "fantasyland."

The Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers National Football League team, bought United in 2005 for about 790 million pounds despite opposition from debt-wary fans.

The Red Knights said this month they were looking into a possible bid for the Old Trafford club that Forbes magazine last year valued at $1.87 billion.

WON'T OVERPAY

The investor group, which also includes Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill, has pledged up to 1.5 billion pounds in its bid, according to the London Times, but the Red Knights said it would not overpay.

While the Glazers have stayed mum on a possible deal, United chief executive David Gill said last week the Glazers would not bow to pressure to force them out.

A U.S. banker working on the sale of English Championship club Sheffield Wednesday agreed.

"There's nothing forcing them to entertain selling," Robert Tillis, CEO of Inner Circle Sports said of the Glazers. "They're long-term holders. They've said that pretty consistently."

Those who know the family said the speculation swirls because the Glazers are so tight-lipped, a strong family trait.

"Their history is buy and hold," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consulting firm Sportcorp Ltd.

"Now, it may be buy and refinance and hold, and then look at refinancing again... but they retain their assets. They don't flip them.

'FORESEEABLE FUTURE'

"I have every expectation they're going to keep Manchester United not just for the foreseeable future, but perhaps into the next generation of family members," he added.

The Glazers, who have owned the Buccaneers since January 1995, launched a bond issue last month to raise 500 million pounds in a bid to realign United's debts, which Gill has called easily sustainable.

For fans thinking a local owner would fare better, Ganis and several bankers said buyers would face the same pressure because they would have to purchase the club at a higher price than the Glazers paid and probably use debt to finance a deal.

The Red Knights have said any new ownership would "put the club on sound financial footing."

Nevertheless, the Glazers have their supporters in the United States, where they led the Buccaneers to a 2003 Super Bowl championship although the NFL team has hit lean times in the last several years.

The Glazers are also appreciated for their support of charitable causes in the Tampa area, where a children's museum sporting the family name is due to open later this year.

"These are folks that have made a lot of roots in the community," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which promotes amateur sports activities and received a $2 million commitment from the Glazers.

Analysts said selling United would likely be the last choice for the Glazers.

"This is a primo property," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. "You don't want to sell them if you can (help it)."