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Manchester United is not for sale. But it kind of is, in the same way that everything is for sale if the offer is high enough.

The rumours started this week with a tweet, a bad joke by a billionaire that he quickly shot down himself. But almost as soon as Elon Musk walked away, the sharks were circling.

Jim Ratcliffe, a British billionaire, was first out of the blocks, saying he would be interested in buying the team if it was, in fact, for sale. An American private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, was reported to be in talks about acquiring a minority stake. Money would not be an issue. Ratcliffe, chair of Ineos, is one of the world’s richest men. Apollo has roughly a half-trillion dollars under management.

But lost in the swirl of breathless reports seemed to be an important caveat: Manchester United wasn’t actually for sale.

Or was it?

These would not seem like top-of-the-market times at United. The team is in last place in England’s Premier League, off to its worst start to a season in more than a century. It employs a squad of players who inspire more ridicule than reverence. Its fans now hold weekly protests against the team’s Florida-based owners, the Glazer family. Yet, despite its struggles, there may not be a more coveted sports franchise anywhere on earth than Manchester United.

It is one of the biggest teams anywhere that can be owned outright. It plays in the most popular soccer league in the world. Its reach extends to every corner of the earth. Quite simply: There are few brands in any sector as powerful as Manchester United.

But assets that rare are famously hard to value through traditional market fundamentals. United’s share price, for example – it is listed on the New York Stock Exchange – would suggest the club is worth US$2.23-billion, a figure well below the record US$3-billion a group led by the California-based fund Clearlake paid this spring for its Premier League rival Chelsea FC.

But Chelsea is not Manchester United, not in any meaningful sense. Yes, it has been successful. Yes, it also employs some of the world’s top players. But in terms of global reach, popularity and brand power, the club does not compare to United. What Chelsea’s sale price proved, though, is that when it comes to elite soccer club valuations, what is on the balance sheet rarely counts.

Chelsea lost more than US$1-million a week under its former owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. It needs a new stadium and will require tens of millions more in spending each season to keep its roster competitive. Its purchase price followed a highly public auction that drew interest from around the world.

For Manchester United, the list of suitors will be even longer, and even more public. Ratcliffe and Apollo may have been the first. They will not be the last.

Ratcliffe’s approach is perhaps the most instructive of what is likely to come. He appears to have made no effort to contact the Glazers directly, or even reach out to their bankers. Instead, he went straight to the news media and suggested he would be open to buying even a piece of United, with an eye on one day acquiring it all.

“We are interested in the club, if it is up for sale,” is all a spokesperson for Ratcliffe was willing to tell The New York Times on Thursday. The tactic unleashed a groundswell of popular support, and heaped a new round of abuse on the current owners.

For the Glazers, who have been under siege for most of their tenure, selling a minority stake might make sense. It might allow them to soothe growing fan hostility – many supporters have never forgiven the Glazers for heaping debt on the previously debt-free club in their £800-million leveraged buyout in 2005, a type of deal the Premier League is now seeking to outlaw – while simultaneously bidding up the team’s overall valuation. That figure is almost certainly going to be higher than United’s share price might suggest.

Despite nearly a decade of underperformance, United still earns more than nearly every other team in world soccer. Revenue has tripled under the Glazers, reaching a high of £627-million (US$741-million) in 2019. If Chelsea is worth US$3-billion on the open market, United, because of its fame, its earning potential and its iconic status, is worth far more, perhaps even double, some experts contend.

At the same time, the scale of the negative sentiment among Manchester United supporters toward the Glazer family is hard to overstate. For more than a decade, fans have rallied against them at matches and in street marches; once, they even burned an effigy of the family’s late patriarch, Malcolm Glazer. And when the club flirted with joining a proposed European Super League last year, United fans broke into the team’s stadium and protested on the field.

But through it all – for almost two decades – the Glazers have hung on, keeping hold of what in many ways is an asset as rare as a priceless painting, thrilled to watch the value of their investment go skyward and with the cachet that comes with owning one of the most famous teams in the world.

It is unclear if all six Glazer siblings, who were parcelled ownership of the team by their father when he died, share the same commitment to owning Manchester United. Brothers Joel and Avram are the most hands on, directly involved in the team’s decision making. But a partial sale might allow less-invested family members to cash out at a premium price, and leave those who remain with a valuation that is almost certain to be the highest price paid for a sports franchise.

For the moment, the Glazers, as has been their custom for nearly two decades, have not uttered a word publicly about their plans. A Manchester United spokesperson declined to comment Thursday.

And now, at least officially, Manchester United is not for sale. The Glazers’ banker, the 200-year-old London-based advisory Rothschild & Co., is not actively soliciting bids. But neither was Abramovich, even as he spent years quietly directing offers that arrived to New York banker Joe Ravitch, who ultimately sold Chelsea this spring.

That is very likely how things will go at Manchester United. There will come a moment when the time and the price are just right, for the most unpopular owners in English soccer history to cash out of what will go down as one of the most profitable deals in sports history.

It has already cost Manchester United more than £1-billion – in interest, debt repayments and dividends – for the right to be owned by the Glazer family. Most fans will consider billions more, this time in the form of one final cheque, a price worth paying to be rid of them.