Glazer has the fans seeing Red

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

Roger Murney is a member of a chorus that has been estimated to be 75 million strong.

They are of one voice, fans of Manchester United, and they are in uproar.

Murney lives in Toronto and works for the TTC. His love of Man U spans several generations.

"My great grandfather was involved in saving the club in the 1800s when they were known as NewtonHeath," Murney said. "Our passion for Manchester United has been passed down to my grandfather, to my dad, to myself and to my sons."

A word on that passion, because it is something that strains the bounds of understanding.

It is a particularly North American conceit that we are the most sports-obsessed culture on the planet. Last year, British police made nearly 4,000 arrests at soccer matches. The news was greeted warmly. The year before, there had been 4,400.

Manchester United is the most popular and probably the most profitable sporting entity in the world.

The club's worth has been pegged at $1.3 billion to $1.7 billion. The top end of that estimate would make it worth twice as much as Forbes' estimated value for the New York Yankees. Moreover, its level of global interest dwarfs that of any North American property.

"The enormity and passion (fans feel) in supporting Manchester United puts it far in excess of what we see in North America," said Dick Howard, TSN's international soccer analyst and, like Manchester United, a northern England export.

"And the thought of putting all that into the hands of an American investor grates."

That investor is 76-year-old Malcolm Glazer, the owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Glazer is a billionaire with vast real estate holdings and an ambition to match. A recent buying spree has brought him 28.11% of the shares, a shade fewer than Irishmen John Magnier and J.P. McManus.

The magic number here is 30%. English law dictates that whoever accrues a 30% share would trigger a takeover bid. Man U managers said it had rejected Glazer's attempts to buy controlling interest but a hostile takeover bid remains a possibility and, for Manchester United fans, a dreaded one.

Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch tried to buy the club in 1997, and supporters mobilized and successfully pressured the government to block the attempt through its monopoly and mergers rules.

Manchester United fans argue their team should remain publicly held.

They point to the fruitful community ownership of the Green Bay Packers and a comparable structure with Real Madrid.

Man U supporters, or at last most of them, view Glazer, Murdoch, and any capitalist interested in their club as carpetbaggers bent on raising ticket prices that remain accessible to virtually any member of the ticket buying public.

They are fearful of a siphoning off the lifeblood of cash that has allowed the club to land a succession of talents, including superstar Wayne Rooney. Indeed, United's board of directors cited the debt ratio Glazer would be carrying in rejecting his overture.

For fans, the argument is phrased in the language of culture, not finance.

"We're not interested in being under the thumb of a very rich guy who knows nothing about our history," Murney said.

Like Murney, Kevin Kerr gathers with several hundred fellow fans at the Elsewhere's pub at Yonge and Eglinton for Manchester United games. He is from Manchester and he views Malcolm Glazer as a dangerous man.

"The club belongs to the fans, not to some wealthy tycoon," he said.

There is truth in that.

About 18% of the club's shares are owned by 37,000 small shareholders. Shareholders United, an organization devoted to keeping the club publicly owned, has been actively buying shares and hopes to boost its holdings from one or two per cent to 10.

Murney was pitching membership all through Saturday's Man U win over Arsenal. Manchester United won 2-0, snapping Arsenal's premiership winning run at an astounding 49 games. Murney speaks to the depth of his conviction when he said, "had I been given a choice between a 6-0 win and a 10% share for Shareholders United, I would have taken the Arsenal win."

There is something winning about the fight being waged by Murney and millions more.

It is different here and, right now, no better.

The most striking lessons of the NHL lockout is that the fan owns the game the way the cow owns the trough.

Fighting back, even futily, seems like time well spent.


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