Sir Alex Ferguson's men lie third in football's rich list but television rights and the club's commercial clout means they could soon break up the Spanish giants' duopoly
By Frank Dalleres
Real Madrid may be the undisputed richest club in the world, and La Liga arch rivals Barcelona their closest challengers in the money generating stakes, but it was not so long ago that Manchester United could boast that status.
For a record eight consecutive years, from 1996-97 to 2003-04, the Premier League side monopolised top spot in Deloitte's Football Money League - a feat only now equalled by Jose Mourinho’s Spanish champions.
Those days may seem a distant memory and the prospect of a reversal remote, but there are several factors that mean United could feasibly overtake the Mediterranean juggernauts again in the near future.
United's annual revenue for the season 2011-12, the most recent for which accounts are available, fell to £320m, some £71m less than Barca and £95m behind Real.
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Then factor in that next season will see a hugely lucrative set of new domestic and international Premier League television rights swell the coffers of all English top flight teams, in particular the most successful ones, and United can expect to see their income rise significantly in the short term.
The other card that United hold is their commercial clout. A new shirt sponsorship deal with Chevrolet, worth an eye-watering £357m over seven years from 2014, and a dizzying array of other far-flung brand tie-ups show why commercial has become their most lucrative revenue stream, eclipsing broadcast and matchday. Combined with better on-field performance and the TV windfall, it could push their turnover into the same rarefied bracket as Real and Barca.
"United are on £320m," Dan Jones, partner in Deloitte's Sports Business Group, explains. "The new Premier League TV deal is likely to be worth, to a club like United, around £30m. They've then got about another £20m going through the shirt deal. That's £50m. They had a very disappointing Champions League, but you've got another [potential] £10m there and another £10m from other commercial sources. You can see them moving up to £400m, which is around €500m.”
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As long as that remains the case, says Jones, it is likely to be a "straight scrap" between them for the title of world's richest club, but some politicians in Spain, where teams beyond the big two, such as Sevilla and Valencia, face severe financial difficulties, want to switch to collective selling. That would threaten to significantly undermine the money-making might of Real and Barca, increasing the chances of them being surpassed by United.
"The details of how that would work or the timings of when it would come into place are a long way off certain," warns Jones, but he notes: "There seems to be an emerging inevitability about them going towards a form of collective selling."
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"Obviously Real Madrid and Barca won't stand still for those three years,” he adds. “A lot of it will come down to how they perform on the pitch."
Footballing success could similarly hold the key to Manchester City’s burgeoning hopes of breaking into a Money League top six that has not changed for five years.
City’s Premier League title-winning campaign and debut appearance in the Champions League helped them to increase income by an enormous 51 per cent to £231m, leaving them just £4m behind Arsenal and in sight of Chelsea.
The Gunners’ finances are, if anything, notoriously healthy. Income rose £8m to £235m, and a much-improved, £30m-a-year shirt and stadium naming rights deal with Emirates set to begin next year should boost that further in the immediate future.
Failure to finish in the top four and maintain their place in Europe’s top club competition – a realistic threat, given the first half of a troubled season -- would partly offset that, though Jones says City will have to see off other rivals, such as Italian champions Juventus and German title winners Borussia Dortmund, to reach the top six.
“On-pitch success and Champions League performance definitely helps,” he says. “It's not just City. Juventus have been right up there before and their new stadium has made a big difference. To break into the top six is tough but there are a few clubs trying.”
Frank Dalleres is Sports Editor of City A.M.
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