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Manchester United: The most profitable sports club in the world?

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While Manchester United languish in mid-table, their financial results have never been better. Based on today's forecasts they can expect to be the most profitable sports club in the world this financial year.

Within the last few hours we have seen the latest sparkling figures and heard confident comments from executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward which suggests the club is the strongest it has ever been.

As he himself acknowledges:

“We once again achieved a record revenue quarter with strong contributions from our commercial and broadcasting businesses despite the current league position, which everyone from the Team Manager down has acknowledged is disappointing."

While many fans may still resent the Glazers' ownership and might piously suggest that this performance could be achieved without the US tenure, the facts remain that United is now a commercial machine of stunning power.

Record profits mean more and better players

The United board has reiterated its forecast of total revenues at £420 to £430 million in the year to June 2014, equivalent to more than $700 million. Compare that to Real Madrid's last annual results of $686 million; or to Manchester City's paltry $286 million last year.

But the headline number for United is their projected profit which is set to be in the range £128-£133 million. No wonder there have been rumours of David Moyes having a transfer war chest of up to $200 million.

For those who still bang on about the debt this does remain at £356 million, but the service cost is falling due to repayments and the renegotiated terms. Nobody bangs on about Real Madrid's debt, which was £457 million last autumn and could well be in excess of £500 million following Gareth Bale's transfer.

In the results webcast this lunchtime Ed Woodward made it clear that the club is prepared to invest what it takes both in Academy players and expected transfer activity greater than the three player average in recent years. He also expects players to leave but not necessarily as many as envisaged by some sections of the media.

There were several questions posed by the online banking analysts which directly or indirectly referred to the current performance on the pitch, especially with regard to any possible impact on revenues going forward.

Woodward's most telling comment in this respect implied that a brand value built up over the last 136 years and sustained by 659 million followers worldwide including 109 million in China alone, would take a very long time to melt away. Indeed he obliquely referred to a club "just down the road" which has continued to make substantial shirt sales despite not winning titles. Liverpool maybe?

The general story was of highly impressive revenue gains across the board which have allowed United to freeze ticket prices yet again next season.

Even before a mooted Nike contract worth up to $1 billion and the start of the $600 million Chevrolet deal, sponsorship revenues are up 39 per cent. Commercial revenue is now 34 per cent of all income and this is expected to increase significantly when the new digital media strategy kicks in during 2015/16.

The impact of Financial Fair Play

Above all, there was a very strong inference that FFP is about to make United's competitive position even stronger.

There is still all sorts of rubbish written about United's inability to compete in the transfer market.

At December 31, United had £72 million cash at the bank and despite Juan Mata's purchase this figure is highly likely to increase by March 31 let alone June 30. On the basis of today's figures there could be as much as £100 million in cash alone this summer, even before any outward player sales are taken into account.

But the big difference about to impact is Financial Fair Play. 

While Woodward was understandably coy about details in answering questions during the webcast, he did make some telling inferences. 

Asked directly about Manchester City's potential problems with FFP, he stated that "a number of clubs are being looked at more closely." When you take that comment together with the references Jose Mourinho made to FFP being a factor last month, we are converging on a potential game-changer for a club as financially successful as United.

While some people would like debt to be taken into account in such a review, it is EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of players' transfer fees) and net profit that are being measured.

EBITDA gives a strong measure of the ability to service debt. In this quarter alone, United's was £51 million and it could realistically be expected to exceed £150 million for the full year.

For comparison, City's total loss for the first two periods of FFP monitoring to the end of 2012/13 was £150 million. With substantial transfers taking place in summer 2013 this will surely increase.

Meanwhile, it is thought PSG may be the first club to fail FFP tests and be excluded from UEFA competitions.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have their own challenges, as the European Community is looking into alleged regional and national government financial support for seven La Liga clubs. If Real Madrid had to repay debt and underpaid taxes they would surely have little recourse but to sell players like Ronaldo and Bale.

So the irony is that, at a time when United are performing worse than for 25 years on the pitch, their finances have never been stronger. Together with FFP they may be one of the best placed clubs in Europe, along with the likes of Bayern Munich, to sign and retain top players going forward.

Which all means that whether or not David Moyes can turn round the current malaise, or even if he were to resign, we may be embarking on one of the most exciting eras in United's history.

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