Retirement of Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson creates uncertainty on and off the field

LONDON – Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Apple and Steve Jobs. Will one of the world’s most recognized soccer clubs face the same challenges the world’s technology darling did after the departure of its iconic leader?

The announcement Wednesday that the Manchester United manager universally known as Fergie will retire has raised concerns not only over the club’s dominance of English soccer but also about its financial future.

Almost 27 years after Ferguson took the helm of an underperforming club, Manchester United is back at the top of the English Premier League and among the highest echelons of Europe’s elite soccer teams, alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona.

With annual revenues of around half a billion dollars and a market capitalization of over $3 billion, the club rooted in the blustery weather of northern England has secured its status as one of the world’s top sporting franchises.

The pillars of English soccer wobbled after the 71-year-old Ferguson announced that he will be retiring at the end of this season — on May 19 he will oversee his final game when Manchester United takes on West Bromwich Albion. No matter — his team clinched the Premier League title weeks ago.

But the retirement news knocked down Manchester United’s share price — testament to the important role Ferguson has played in driving both the club’s financial and sporting success.

After sliding 5 per cent at the open, Manchester United’s share price settled somewhat Wednesday, trading 1.3 per cent lower at $18.52.

It’s only been nine months since the Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise, held an initial public offering for the club on the New York Stock Exchange as a way to reduce its debt.

In its prospectus at the time, Manchester United warned that it was “highly dependent” on certain individuals. “Any successor to our current manager may not be as successful as our current manager,” it conceded.

Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York, said identifying the departure of individuals like Ferguson as a risk factor that may jeopardize the club’s success “highlights the instability of investments in sports franchises revolving around specific individuals.”

In Apple’s case, its share price may be trading higher than what it was when Jobs was at the helm, but it is facing criticism from users and analysts that it is taking its time coming up with the latest piece of must-have tech and is simply trading on past successes.

Nonetheless, analysts expect continuing success for Manchester United and company. Randal J. Konik, an equities analyst at Jeffries International, said Manchester United “has wisely been planning and preparing for the eventual retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson” and that “a new, highly qualified manager” will be appointed.

At the moment, Everton manager David Moyes and Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho are among the favourites for Ferguson’s job.

There’s no doubt that Ferguson can take the credit for much of his club’s transformation on and off the field.

In 1986, when he became manager, Manchester United had gone a generation without winning a league title, its status largely resting on its history. Local and bitter rival Liverpool was pre-eminent — and seemingly untouchable.

Ferguson’s self-proclaimed ambition was to knock Liverpool off its perch, one he realized through the accumulation of 13 Premier League championships and two Champion League victories among his 38 titles with the club.

While change was afoot on the soccer field, the club was making moves on the financial front too.

In 1991, shares in the club were listed on the London Stock Exchange, generating a cash windfall that helped Manchester United end its title drought two years later — a breakthrough that launched a period of dominance in English soccer that only Liverpool could match.

Success bred more success and by 1998, the club received a takeover bid from none other than Rupert Murdoch, whose BSkyB PLC broadcaster already had the television rights to screen live coverage of the increasingly lucrative Premier League. Although the Manchester United board accepted the 623 million pounds bid, the takeover attempt met with huge resistance from fans and was eventually ruled unlawful by British competition authorities in 1999.

Ferguson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999, following the club’s unprecedented triple success in the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup.

A period of boardroom friction then ensued, which at times threatened Ferguson’s position as manager.

By 2003, the family of Malcolm Glazer started building up a stake in Manchester United as it attempted to reap the rewards that came from the club’s pre-eminence in English soccer and the skyrocketing revenues from television rights and sponsorships.

Within two years, the Glazers had built up a majority stake in Manchester United that eventually allowed them to take it out of public hands.

Many United fans have opposed the Glazer family because the Glazers placed a large chunk of the debt they had built up while taking control of the club on its balance sheet.

In August 2012, the Glazers sought to refinance the debt at better terms than the prevailing conditions by floating the club on the New York Stock Exchange. Despite lacklustre interest — the share price was floated at $14 a share as opposed to the hoped-for $16-20 price range — investors have grown more enthusiastic. The share price recently made a brief foray above $19 — not a bad return for investors who bought up the stock in the initial offering.

Demand for the stock has gone hand in hand with Manchester United’s advance to a 20th league title this spring.

United’s debt has been cut in half in the past three years to 367.6 million pounds ($572 million), according to the latest financial results. United also recently forecast record revenue this season of at least 350 million pounds thanks largely to its ability to attract an array of global sponsors.

Manchester United will also benefit from the TV rights to show its matches. Last year, the English Premier League announced the sale of domestic TV rights to BSkyB and BT for 3.018 billion pounds ($4.69 billion) in a record three-year deal that was almost twice as much as the previous contract.

Despite his departure, Ferguson can claim to have sowed the seeds for his club’s further success. The squad itself is young and the club’s youth squad system that he overhauled has a history of delivering top-rated talent.

Manchester United’s debt has eased partly on the back of the initial public offering but also through the club’s ability to raise money, not the least from ticket prices at the 76,000-seat Old Trafford.

In the U.K. Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron praised Ferguson as a “remarkable man in British football who has had an extraordinary, successful career.”

Fans — and investors — will clearly want to see the success that Fergie delivered so consistently continue for years to come.