Sports

The public shouldn’t pay to rebuild Manchester United’s stadium for a billionaire


“I think if it’s a national stadium and is a catalyst for the regeneration of that part of southern Manchester… there has to be a conversation with the government.”

While much of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s round of media interviews on Wednesday, after his acquisition of 27.7 per cent of Manchester United was finally confirmed, may have excited United fans, there were more than a few elements that caused surprise.

Among lines about “knocking Manchester City and Liverpool off their perch” and nice stories about chumming around with Sir Alex Ferguson, his comments on women’s team made them sound like an afterthought, merely offering that “if it’s a team wearing a Manchester United badge on their shirt, then it’s Manchester United and they need to be focused on winning and being successful.” But to offer the benefit of the doubt, these are early days and perhaps there are big plans afoot.

His answer to the question about Mason Greenwood and making a “fresh decision” on the forward’s future also set alarm bells ringing, but it’s probably only fair to judge him on that matter when the nature of the “fresh decision” is made clear.


Ratcliffe highlighted this picture as one of his favourite United moments this season (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

What also stuck out were his comments regarding Old Trafford and either the potential renovation of United’s home stadium or the possible construction of a new one.

Ratcliffe suggested that, when the time comes to either rebuild or replace Old Trafford, he would seek out some sort of public funding, also suggesting that it would be part of a potential regeneration of that area of Manchester.

Ratcliffe said: “People in the north pay their taxes and there is an argument you could think about a more ambitious project in the north which would be fitting for England, for the Champions League final or the FA Cup final and acted as a catalyst to regenerate southern Manchester, which has got quite significant history in the UK.”

The easy (and not unreasonable) gotcha is that Ratcliffe invoked the UK taxpayer while not being one himself. He was asked about his residency in the tax haven of Monaco, to which he replied: “I paid my taxes for 65 years in the UK. And then when I got to retirement age, I went down to enjoy a bit of sun.” A happy coincidence that the only possible place “to enjoy a bit of sun” also happens to be where the income tax rate is zero per cent.

But while true, that distracts from the main issue, which is trying to guilt-trip the taxpayer into subsidising a new stadium for Manchester United.

Fans of U.S. sports will be familiar with the tactic: a sports team owner pressures the local government into providing millions of dollars worth of funding or tax subsidies for a new stadium, earnestly promising that it wouldn’t really cost anything at all because it would bring a raft of economic benefits to the local community.

However, multiple studies in America have exposed this claim as, at best, hugely exaggerated and, more realistically, complete nonsense.

There are many examples of this, but one is the Atlanta Braves: in 2013 the Cobb County authorities committed $300million (£237m) to the construction of Truist Park, the team’s prospective new home (which replaced Turner Field, itself only constructed in 1996), which came with a series of other surrounding retail and residential developments. The suggestion was that the whole thing would be a sound public investment. In 2022, a report from JC Bradbury, an economist from Kennesaw State University, found that while there were increases in things such as sales tax, it didn’t cover the money initially invested by the authorities.

Bradbury wrote that ‘the evidence does not support the widespread claim that the $300m invested by the County to fund the stadium was a sound financial investment’ and that ‘the stadium runs significant annual deficits, which will likely continue for the remaining 25 years of the County’s commitment.’

That example is cited because at least there has been enough time to judge the benefit or otherwise — but it’s only increasing. The Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, which recently hosted the Super Bowl, cost $1.9billion, of which $750m came from public funding. A recent NBC report stated that over the last 50 years, around $33billion in public funds was spent to either build new stadiums or renovate old ones.

Ratcliffe doesn’t have the same leverage as those U.S. owners, because invariably the threat they leave hanging over the authorities is that they will move their team to a city more amenable to providing them with a shiny new home. Even hinting at the vague possibility that he could potentially consider anything like that, would be the easiest way to violently torch any goodwill towards him from pretty much anywhere.

Public subsidies for stadiums are a mess that is entrenched in US sports, but cannot be allowed to take hold in the UK. For a start, where would the money come from?

A Manchester Council budget process report recently revealed that they could be looking at a budget gap of £71.9million in 2026-27, which by coincidence will probably be right around the time that work on Old Trafford could begin, if Ratcliffe gets his way.

There will no doubt be wrangling over which public authority would provide United with the funding, not least because Old Trafford is technically not in Manchester, but the point remains: at a time when councils around the UK are going bankrupt (often, funnily enough, because they got involved in ill-advised and economically unsound construction projects), which means basic services are catastrophically affected, how can anyone justify committing public money to spruce up a football club’s stadium or buy a new one?


Ratcliffe believes a new or revamped Old Trafford is key to United’s advancement (Simon Peach/PA Images via Getty Images)

Ratcliffe isn’t wrong when he mentions the southern (by which he means London) bias when it comes to national sporting venues in England.

He’s also right that the north of England has been historically neglected and ignored by the UK government.

But even though Ratcliffe has a point, it’s hard to take it seriously because we know he’s being disingenuous, at best. He’s not asking for a separate ‘Wembley of the north’ to be constructed for the benefit of the people: he’s asking for the redevelopment of his own club’s stadium to be (at least partly) paid for by the people.

United don’t need the money. They brought in £648million in the last financial year, up 11 per cent on the previous one. They were fourth in the recent Deloitte Money League rankings of the richest clubs in the world. They would, you’d imagine, easily be able to secure funding based only on the increased revenue that would come from a new or refurbished stadium. They even have an elite recent example in Tottenham, who managed to build their new stadium without public money. The spending wouldn’t even harm their profit and sustainability calculations, as infrastructure costs are exempt.

And at the most basic level, it’s hard to take seriously a man personally worth £29.7billion, according to the most recent Sunday Times rich list, suggesting that his latest acquisition needs a new home and that you should pay for it, which would also increase the value of his investment.

Ratcliffe’s were just early suggestions, and there’s no indication that any public body would actually be amenable to it. But even so, the idea that public money should be used to help renovate or rebuild Old Trafford should be stopped as early as possible.

go-deeper

(OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)



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