Manchester United’s 2015-16 season was supposed to have been something of a disaster. Early elimination from the Champions League, failure in the Europa League, inability to reach the top four, repeated frustration at Louis van Gaal’s style of football which led to the Dutchman being sacked… the evidence of the club’s regression was seemingly endless.
A record-equalling 12th FA Cup triumph did at least give fans something to smile about, but undoubtedly the most encouraging news from an otherwise-forgettable campaign came on Thursday with United rising to the top of the Deloitte Money League after an 11-year wait thanks to an amazing 32.6 per cent growth in revenue. United's revenue for 2015-16 was an astonishing €689 million (£515.3m), almost €70m more than the world's second and third richest clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively.
At a time when Jose Mourinho’s side are on a 16-match unbeaten run, the club’s return as the world’s leading economic powerhouse comes as a massive boost. It is a reminder of the Premier League’s muscle in the modern game even before the new 2016-19 TV rights deal comes into the picture, as well as a timely pointer as to United’s continued appeal worldwide.
Real Madrid might have bossed the Deloitte Money League for over a decade, but United’s return to the top after finishing third in 2014-15 comes after an extraordinary increase in commercial revenue - which accounted for 53% of overall revenue (€363.8m/£272.1m). While executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was identified by many as one of the major reasons for the on-field failures of last season, he deserves just as much attention for the huge leaps the club is making away from the pitch.
“Manchester United have had to wait 11 years to regain their position as the world’s leading revenue-generating club and it has taken phenomenal commercial revenue growth to help them achieve this,” explains Dan Jones, partner in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte.
“In recent years, their ability to secure commercial partnerships with value in excess of that achievable by their peers has been the crucial factor in enabling the club to regain their place at the top of the Money League.
It is thanks to this reach off the pitch that even after a relative disaster of a season under Van Gaal, United could confidently head into the market for names such as Mourinho, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and world-record signing Paul Pogba. There is simply no end to United’s potential.
While logic might suggest that the longer they go without a Premier League or Champions League success, the more they would struggle as a financial force, the truth is that they are growing closer to returning to the top with every day. Their growth as an economic power continues unabated, allowing them to spend bigger and bigger sums in the transfer market in order to return to the top.
Just as Pogba’s €100m transfer fee made many eyes water last summer, United can easily break the bank again in the next close season for another of the game’s leading lights, regardless of where they finish in the current campaign. And that is a fact that the rest of Europe simply has to get used to.
There is one word of warning, though, from Dan Jones relating to the 2016-17 standings released in January 2018: “They’ll face strong competition from Barcelona and Real Madrid to retain the top spot in next year’s edition, due to the lack of Champions League football, the weakening of the Pound against the Euro and, over the longer term, as other clubs enter the commercial market demanding similar deals, using United as the precedent.”
But there can be no doubting that United lead the way. Barcelona and Real Madrid have both been fixtures in the Champions League over the past decade, yet they still trail United in terms of pulling power. And now that things are beginning to slowly turn around on the playing side, it is surely only a matter of time before their economic standing is reflected on the honours board.
Just as Madrid’s economic pull allowed them to keep spending on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale until they finally broke their barren run in Europe, United have given themselves the green light to keep buying big as they move towards becoming the world's greatest club once more.