It is getting close to four years since Ed Woodward issued his immortal line about Manchester United’s money-making clout being insulated from factors such as whether they are actually a successful football club.
It was on a conference call with investors in May 2018 that Woodward sounded his bullish rallying cry over United’s ability to continue drawing in those record-breaking commercial revenues. Woodward was actually being asked if an improved Premier League performance had played a part in an impressive set of financial figures, but his answer di lui is more pertinent these days given United’s ongoing lack of success.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” he said. That statement has generally held up in the nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and United stopped winning things, but while their revenues remain solid, those of their rivals are continuing to grow.
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In the latest edition of the Deloitte Money League report, taking in revenues from the 2020/21 season, United have fallen to fifth position, their lowest standing in the 25 years that the report has been produced. Perhaps more galling is the sight of the club now sitting top of the pile, in Manchester City, who are quickly making strides when it comes to generating commercial revenue themselves.
The report is well-read enough to have encouraged AC Milan to question their own position in the latest edition, successfully pointing out their revenues weren’t accurately reflected. Away from United’s fall away from the top four – something they might have to get used to – there is a starker warning from the authors contained within the analysis of the figures.
“Manchester City – who ranked above Manchester United for the first time in the 2022 edition of the Money League – are also ahead when compared over a two year period,” the report states. “This period saw City generate greater commercial revenue than that of its cross-city rivals, possibly signalling a long feted ‘changing of the guard’ in terms of the revenue-generating ability of top Premier League clubs.”
As headline-grabbing as that statement is, there are caveats to it. City’s improved revenues included increased broadcast fees from reaching the Champions League final, while the financial figures are for an entire season played without fans, something that will impact the coffers at Old Trafford more severely than at the Etihad.
So talk of a ‘changing of the guard’ is probably premature, but the direction of travel looks ominous. United will hope to be back above City in 12 months’ time, but there are no guarantees that will be the case.
They are certainly putting Woodward’s bullishness about commercial revenues to the test. There is certainly still an attraction to being associated with United for brands, but it simply cannot be as strong as it was when they were the dominant force in English football, not Manchester City.
United’s ability to talk up their commercial success has often grated with fans who have felt the balance between a successful business and a successful football club hasn’t always been struck, a view shared by some inside the dressing room as well, but club bosses have always pointed out that those revenues are key to funding spending in the transfer market and that’s an area where United have continued to compete strongly since 2013.
But as they do battle with state-backed clubs such as City and Newcastle, there is going to be continued pressure to make money to reinvest on the playing side. Any sign of United’s revenues weakening in relation to their rivals will set alarm bells ringing, even if only quietly for now, given the circumstances of this latest report.
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