Manchester United have been named the world's most valuable sports team - ahead of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Arsenal.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team, bought by the Glazer family for $1.47billion in 2005, are now worth $2.23billion according to Forbes magazine. Four football teams breach the top 10 most valuable sports franchises, with United and Real Madrid occupying first and second spots.
Lionel Messi and Barcelona sit eighth, behind a clutch of NFL and baseball teams, while Arsene Wenger's Arsenal - worth $1.29billion - squeak in at number 10.
On the pitch, United suffered the heartache of watching their nearest rival Manchester City pip them to the title. On the final day of the season - 13 May 2012 - in the final minutes of a dramatic, thrilling and ultimately grueling campaign, Manchester United dropped into second place in the Premier League table.
Roberto Mancini's Manchester City clinched their first league title that day - leaving Sir Alex Ferguson stuck on 19 - but United remain top of the tree in terms of value, a position they have held since 2007.
Fans of the Red Devils will soon get the opportunity to buy a share of their club, as the Glazers have filed plans for an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. But the share offer restricts voting rights, and is unlikely to pay down a significant chunk of the club's debt load, which currently totals $663million.
The Glazer family borrowed mountains of money to buy the club in 2005, saddling the club with vast debts, and leaving a legacy typical of such a heavily leveraged buyout. Like many of the world's top clubs, including Barcelona, Manchester United have found their ability to act in the transfer market restricted by their vast interest repayments and contractual debt obligations.
But the overall asset the Glazers bought back in 2005 is healthy. Manchester United the brand is growing rapidly, moving into emerging markets and the exponentially increasing TV money from BSkyB and BT is covering costs for now.
Boasting more than 659million fans around the world, and with sponsorship deals worth $31million a year with Aon and $16million a year with DHL, United's business model is on a strong footing. But the debts act like a drag on the rest of the business.
In the last year United's value has increased by a fifth, but Barcelona and Real Madrid have grown at an even quicker pace - 34% and 29% respectively. Still, United are still worth almost 20% more than Jose Mourinho's side, which is worth $1.88billion, although both Spanish clubs post higher revenues and are steadily catching up.
La Liga giants Barcelona are worth $1.31billion, but their recent financial problems have led to a raft of reforms in Catalonia. The cooperative structure of the club ensures that the 177,000 club members each have a say, which occasionally makes it difficult to reconcile on-pitch decisions over management, transfers and players with hard-headed business decisions.
In recent seasons the club's mounting debt has focused the collective mind of the fans - Barca's debt was zero in 1995 but totaled $612million in 2010. New management has stripped the club back, cutting costs by $109million, largely by capping player salaries.
And the famous Barca shirt, which for so long resisted the attempts to desecrate it with commercial sponsors, has finally caved in. The Catalan club's sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation is worth close to $43million a year - enough to help finance one marquee signing per season.
The Premier League's other representative, Arsenal, lie 10th, with an estimated worth of $1.29billion. Gunners fans plead for more spending, but the north London club's debt to value ratio is 32% - the same as Manchester United.
Football's other most valuable teams include Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool and Juventus. The Italian clubs have posted big losses in recent years, while the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid have all posted small profits despite their debt burdens - and AC Milan and Juventus have had to trim their squads.
Chelsea, like Manchester City, rely on a rich benefactor to shield losses, but the Blues value of $761million still puts them 45th in the list of the world's most valuable sports teams. Their Champions League triumph, which brought in $73million in prize money, was a nice boost.
But the world's top football teams often struggle to operate profitably. The model favoured by City and Chelsea may become redundant with the advent of Financial Fair Play, but as long as spending money continues to equal success, clubs will look to live beyond their means to snare that elusive trophy.
Manchester United's unparalleled cash generating capacity - their matchday income is one of the highest - allied to their share of the new £3billion TV deal will prevent them from slipping into a debt spiral any time soon.
But their imminent stock exchange flotation is a tacit admission that the club is handicapped by its mountains of debt. Tapping into the club's unique position as the most valuable sports brand will allow them to pay down the payments, but United's initial filings have been met with skepticism on the stock market floor.
Football teams don't operate like businesses, and they shouldn't. As competitive sports teams their role should be to win matches for their fans, not to maximise profits like a Coca-Cola or Microsoft. But such debt mountains are unsustainable, and hurt the teams' ability to reinvest income in new players, stadiums and training grounds.
Manchester United find themselves in the strongest position in terms of value. But paying down the debt would give them the best possible chance of putting them back into the strongest position on the field.
Forbes Top 10 Most Valuable Sports Teams
1 - Manchester United $2.23billion
2 - Real Madrid $1.88billion
3 - New York Yankees $1.85billion
3 - Dallas Cowboys $1.85billion
5 - Washington Redskins $1.56billion
6 - New England Patriots $1.4billion
8 - Barcelona $1.31billion
9 - New York Giants $1.3billion
10 - Arsenal $1.29billion
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