Have the fans met their match?

Five years ago, Malcolm Glazer decided to write a book about his success. Like any self-made multimillionaire lacking time or literary talent, he searched for a ghostwriter. Allen St John, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was among those called to the Hilton on Sixth Avenue in New York to meet the man who, at the age of 76, is now trying to buy Manchester United.

Glazer, recalls St John, had chosen a cramped twin-bed room to conduct these potentially important meetings.
The room appeared to have been occupied the previous night by Glazer and his son Bryan, who was also in attendance. If that suggested a frugal, even penny-pinching, nature, Glazer was eager to confirm the impression.

At one point he interrupted a monologue about his early years to point at Bryan’s trousers. “You see those pants?” he asked. “Those are Hugo Boss pants. They cost $200.

“My pants?” he continued. “They came from JC Penney, $19,95 on sale. And you know something? I like my pants more than he likes his pants. You know why? Because I remember the days when I didn’t have $20 to spend on pants.”

The book never materialised and, in truth, the idea was wholly out of character. Glazer, the son of a poor Lithuanian immigrant, has generally adopted a “never explain” approach to the many controversies he has provoked during his climb to become America’s 278th-richest person, according to Forbes magazine’s 2004 league table. He is worth $1-billion.

He has not given a proper press interview for years, certainly not since he paid $192-million for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January 1995. Apart from the occasional trot down the touchline before home games, he has not tried to bask in the glory of the team’s triumph two years ago in the Super Bowl. Tampa fans call him the Leprechaun in reference to his small, round frame and gingerish beard.

“He is different from other sports franchise owners in that he is very much a businessman and he is proud of that,” says St John. “At a certain point, many of them are almost embarrassed to talk about how much money they have made, whereas Glazer is completely unapologetic. For him, it is not just about sporting victory but also about business victory. He is just as happy to make money on something as win a championship.”

That analysis goes to the heart of fans’ fears about Glazer’s motives. The would-be bidder has spent about £180-million acquiring a 28,1% stake in the club without setting foot inside Old Trafford. He did not watch the team play during its American tour last year. Nor has he made any attempt to woo the fans. Nothing has been done to counter the idea that he would increase ticket prices, as he did at Tampa.

The only personal image that Glazer tries to promote is that of a man who has worked hard for his fortune and cares about his family. The Glazer Family Foundation’s website gives only the briefest account of what it calls a “true American success story”, describing how Glazer worked in the family watch-parts business in Rochester, New York, from the age of eight. When his father died in 1943, Glazer, the eldest son, assumed responsibility for the business at 15.

Thereafter, the tale has less charm. Glazer’s 60-year business career, incorporating property, fish, fast-food restaurants, local television stations and nursing homes, has been punctuated with minor court cases.

Some are bizarre, even by the standards of America’s litigation-happy culture. Soon after the Tampa Bay takeover, residents of a trailer park accused Glazer’s holding company of illegally charging an extra $5 a month for keeping a pet and $3 for each resident beyond the first two. Glazer eventually dropped the fees, but not before incurring acres of bad publicity.

The strangest of the legal cases is the one involving his mother’s estate, originally worth $1-million. Glazer’s dispute with four of his older sisters dragged on for more than a decade in the civil courts. “I don’t think they were very happy that mother got a new Cadillac every year and they had to use an old car,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1992.

Recurring themes in Glazer’s career — ones that echo in the assault on United — are his willingness to employ heavy borrowings and efforts to maximise the bargaining power of relatively small investments.

Having concentrated on property in his early years, initially buying rented homes in Rochester, he reinvented himself as a corporate raider in the go-go stock markets of the 1980s. In 1988, he bought 10% of Formica, the work-surface company, and threatened to bid for it before selling the stake to a higher bidder. The following year, he employed similar tactics at Harley-Davidson; he built a 6,9% stake, generated some takeover fever and then sold at a profit.

In the 1990s, he made a killing in junk bonds, a feat that will have required high nerve and astute analysis. Glazer judged that things could not get much worse, and is reckoned to have doubled his $80-million investment as economic recovery ensured that not all companies defaulted on their junk bonds.

Glazer’s interest in United probably springs from the same instinct: he thinks it’s a bargain, even at £800-million. According to his advisers, Glazer thinks the current United management is guilty of under-exploiting the brand. If you think £45 for a replica shirt is already quite enough, you have not been paying attention to the possibilities.

Arsenal will collect £100-million for allowing their new stadium to be named after an airline for 15 years. How much could be made by attaching a sponsor’s name to Old Trafford?

Therein lies the reason for the intensity of the hostility of United fans, who this week hanged an effigy of Glazer from the gates of Old Trafford. They believe Glazer is interested only in milking the club’s impressive cash flows.

Glazer’s record as a successful owner of a sports club rests almost entirely on that Super Bowl victory in 2003. To be fair, this achievement should not be underestimated. Tampa Bay in its pre-Glazer years was a perennial loser. Unfortunately for those trying to promote Glazer as a genius of sports management, the Buccaneers have since reverted to their losing ways.

The value of the franchise, though, has roughly trebled under Glazer’s ownership, partly because he was able to secure taxpayers’ money for a new stadium.

Glazer bases himself in Palm Beach, Florida, where he has two huge mansions on the oceanfront. He attends the Palm Beach synagogue and contributed to its construction. He and his wife, Linda, have six children — Avram, Kevin, Bryan, Joel, Ed and Darcie — and it is they who are reputed to have encouraged the move into sport. Joel and Avram are fronting the attempt to buy United.

The bad news for United fans is that Glazer’s defining characteristic is his bloody-mindedness. He tried to buy four other American sports franchises before getting the Buccaneers. When he was rebuffed by the United board last year, he responded by buying more shares.

Then he voted off three directors, which cost him his City advisers. So he recruited others and came back with a new proposal. He seems to be a man who does not care what people think of him. — Â

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