Which is the better buy - the Washington Commanders or Manchester United?

It seems to defy logic that the ailing NFL team are attracting larger bids than a Premier League club with a billion fans around the world

The Washington Commanders celebrate after completing a play against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField in Maryland on January 8th. Photograph: Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Washington’s NFL team have not won a championship in three decades, struggle to sell out their stadium and were recently ranked the least-desirable team in the NFL by players. Manchester United are regular contenders in the English Premier League (EPL) and one of the most sought-after sports brands, with about a billion fans around the globe.

The owners of both teams are exploring selling their clubs. The Washington Commanders are considering bids likely to exceed $6 billion (€5.6 billion), while Manchester United appear so far to have failed to secure bids for a similar amount.

On the surface, it defies logic that the Commanders are worth anything close to what Manchester United are. They have languished in a sport that is barely played outside North America, while Manchester United are one of the top teams in soccer, a global game with considerable potential for growth.

But the potential sale price of the two teams speaks volumes about the economics and the financial fortunes of the NFL, by far America’s most dominant league, and the Premier League, the world’s top-grossing domestic soccer competition.


Here is a primer on the disparity between the values of the clubs.

What are some of the differences in the economics of the two leagues?

“It’s simple: The economic structure of the NFL is far superior to the economic structure of the EPL,” said Sal Galatioto, a long-time sports banker who teaches the business of sports at Columbia University. “If you lose every game in the NFL, you still make money.”

The reason? The NFL evenly divides all of its national revenue – from broadcast contracts, merchandise sales, sponsorships and so on – among its 32 teams, regardless of their performance. That money makes up about 75 per cent of each team’s revenue, creating financial parity.

In the Premier League, some media revenue is distributed based on merit, so better teams earn more. And each year, the three worst-performing teams are relegated to the Championship, where the media money is less lucrative.

What are the media deals worth?

In 2021, the NFL renewed most of its broadcast contracts. They are worth more than $110 billion, nearly double the last deal. NFL players receive a maximum of 48.8 per cent of those media contracts, as well as merchandise sales, sponsorships and other national sources. The owners get the rest.

Critically, those broadcast contracts run into the next decade. That means even the Commanders, who have not won a playoff game since the second Bush administration, received roughly $350 million in national revenue, according to financials published by the Green Bay Packers, the only publicly owned team.

The Premier League media deals are typically smaller and shorter, though clubs that qualify for other tournaments such as the Champions League can earn additional revenue. The last time the Premier League’s TV rights were renewed in England, revenues grew only slightly, though international rights deals continue to rise in value. The league will earn a little less than £4 billion in media rights fees this year in total, less than half of what the NFL will earn.

Manchester United's Marcel Sabitzer scores his side's second goal of the game against Fulham during the FA Cup quarter-final match at Old Trafford on Sunday. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
How do labour costs factor in?

NFL players belong to the NFL Players Association, which negotiated a new, 10-year collective bargaining agreement in 2020. The NFL also has a salary cap – $208 million last year, rising to $225 million this year. That means every club’s biggest expense – player payroll – is fixed.

This stability is lacking in the Premier League, which has fewer limits on payroll, which can lead to expensive, even crippling bidding wars for players. Failing to qualify for tournaments can prevent teams from keeping pace financially with their biggest rivals.

“Their player wages are so high that when they don’t make the Champions League, it can be punitive,” said Rob Tilliss, founder of Inner Circle Sports, which has brokered team purchases in numerous sports.

What about supply and demand?

There are only 32 NFL teams, with little chance of expansion – and that lack of supply keeps prices high. Teams also change hands infrequently, and when they do, their sale prices grow, which in turn enhances the value of the other 31 teams. The Buffalo Bills were sold for $1.4 billion in 2014. Four years later, the Carolina Panthers were purchased for $2.2 billion. Last year, the Denver Broncos were bought for $4.65 billion.

And if a potential Premier League franchise owner finds the price of a team too high, they can buy a team in a lower division, or hop across the English Channel to buy a team in France, Spain or elsewhere.

What prompted these owners to consider selling?

The Glazer family hired bankers to explore a potential sale of Manchester United in November, six months after Chelsea were sold for £2.5 billion, far more than expected for a club that was under extreme duress because of government sanctions related to its Russian owner, Roman Abramovich.

For all of its tradition and success, Manchester United – who have won the Premier League 13 times since its formation in 1992 – lost more than £100 million in the last year, and are more than £500 million in debt, according to their most recent financial statements. The amount they spend on player wages skyrocketed in the past decade and the team lost out on revenue by often failing to qualify for the Champions League.

Before reports of a possible sale in November, Manchester United’s stock price was below £11, where it traded when it was first listed in 2012.

The Commanders have plenty of problems, too. They were 30th in the league in attendances last season, despite playing in the sixth-largest market in the country. Their stadium is unappealing and difficult to reach, and their owner, Daniel Snyder, has been unable to secure public money to help build a new one.

Snyder was also in a bitter fight with three of his former limited partners, and he and some of his top executives have been accused of sexual harassment and creating a toxic workplace, which prompted a congressional committee to hold hearings last year. The attorneys general in the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland are looking into various allegations against the team, including a possible ticket-skimming scheme.

Who are the potential buyers for these teams?

There have been at least two bids for Manchester United. Jim Ratcliffe, a British billionaire who made his fortune from the chemical company Ineos, and Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of a former prime minister of Qatar, announced that they had submitted bids.

The value of their bids are not known, but they do not seem to have lived up to the Glazer family’s hopes. English news media have reported that the Glazers are asking for revised bids, and have pushed back their targeted sale deadline to the summer from this spring.

The Glazers may not sell the team at all. They have said they are exploring new investments or “other transactions” in addition to a possible sale.

While a sale price of $6 billion or more might seem excessive for the Commanders, groups led by Josh Harris, a founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management who also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils, and Tilman Fertitta, a casino and restaurant magnate who owns the Houston Rockets, are considering serious bids for the club. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the third-wealthiest person in the world, has also hired bankers to explore a potential bid.

– This article first appeared in the New York Times

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