The tycoon: Avram Glazer's ownership of Man U has been controversial
The tycoon: Avram Glazer's ownership of Man U has been controversial
The co-owner of the world's most famous football club tried and failed to buy an IPL franchise, but he's made up now
November 2021. Officials at the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) are at Dubai International Cricket Stadium watching a T20 World Cup match when a message comes through telling them that Avram Glazer - Avie to his close associates - wants to speak to them.
Glazer, the American co-owner of Manchester United football club, has been busy. Days after United suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool, their historic rivals, at their home ground, Old Trafford, his representatives had travelled to Dubai to bid for an IPL franchise.
The league was expanding from eight teams to ten and Glazer - acting through his holding company Lancer Capital - had decided the time was right for him to move into cricket. The IPL's media rights were up for renegotiation the following year and were predicted to fetch an astronomical sum. A franchise would not come cheap, but it looked as though it would be worth the investment.
Glazer and his advisors knew that competition would be fierce, but they had underestimated the extent of it. Lancer bid Rs 4128.65 crore (approximately US$551 million at the time) for the Ahmedabad franchise and Rs 4023.99 crore ($537 million) for Lucknow; the franchises were sold for Rs 5625 crore (to CVC Capital) and Rs 7090 crore (to RPSG Group) respectively. Lancer's bids were the lowest from any of the nine parties involved in the process.
It was an early setback in Glazer's attempts to get involved in franchise cricket, but within days he was in contact with the ECB. He had heard that they had plans to sanction a new T20 league that would launch in early 2023 - unusually, the league is privately owned by a board official, not the board itself - and prospective owners were being sought. He asked when they would be free to chat; 15 minutes later, he was on a Zoom call.
Mind the windows, here's another league: players from each of the teams pose with the ILT20 trophy
Mind the windows, here's another league: players from each of the teams pose with the ILT20 trophy © ILT20
During the call Glazer realised that the officials were at Dubai Stadium and asked to have a look around. Laptops were lifted up and waved around the meeting room to give him a first glance at the venue through glass windows. The stadium will host 16 of the 34 games in the inaugural season, including the final, of the tournament, called the International League T20 (ILT20). Glazer liked what he saw. Within weeks, he was announced as the owner of one of the six franchises of the ILT20, which will launch on Friday.
Malcolm Glazer, Avram's late father, took control of Manchester United in 2005 after a £790 million (about $1437 million then) leveraged buyout. He bought out existing shareholders, primarily through loans secured against the club's assets, and the family's ownership of the club has been hugely controversial ever since. The green-and-gold scarf, the colours Newton Heath wore before changing their name to Manchester United in 1902, has been ubiquitous at Old Trafford as a sign of protest.
"At the time of buying the club, Manchester United was the only big football club in the world with no debt," says Chris Rumfitt, a spokesman for Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST). "They bought the club with debt and then immediately transferred the debt from themselves onto the club, in a stroke turning Manchester United into the football club with the most debt.
"And really, that debt has been a millstone around the club's neck ever since. It's roughly the same level today as it was 17 years ago, and we've had to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in interest payments on debt that was never ours and was always theirs. That has hamstrung the club and has led to decline both on the field - particularly in the last decade - but also off it. Old Trafford used to be one of the best stadiums in the world but there has been no investment, and it is now very clearly fraying at the edges."
Glazer Sr made his name through First Allied Corporation, a holding company through which he bought up commercial real estate in the US then rented it out. He was born to Lithuanian-Jewish parents in Rochester, New York, where his father sold watch parts; when he died, Malcolm, the oldest son, assumed responsibility for the business aged 15. "Recurring themes in [Malcolm] Glazer's career… are his willingness to employ heavy borrowings and efforts to maximise the bargaining power of relatively small investments," the Guardian wrote in 2005, at the time of the takeover of Manchester United. "He seems to be a man who does not care what people think of him."
In 1995, Malcolm Glazer led the takeover of Tampa Bay Buccanneers, the NFL franchise who had not made the playoffs for the previous 13 seasons, for a then-record fee of $192 million. Results quickly improved, and they have twice won the Super Bowl under the family's ownership: first in 2002, then again in 2020 after signing the legendary quarterback Tom Brady.
Three of Malcolm Glazer's sons (Joel, Avram and Bryan) were appointed to United's board of directors in 2005 but within a year of the takeover, Glazer Sr suffered two strokes. He then added his other three children - Kevin, Edward and Darcie - to the board, with Joel and Avram taking over the club's day-to-day running. There have been indirect links with cricket during their tenure: Manu Sawhney, the ICC's chief executive from 2019 through 2021, has been an independent non-executive director at United for a decade, while Andy Anson, the chair at neighbouring Lancashire, was the club's commercial director until 2007.
Supporters protest outside Old Trafford with the green and gold colours of Newton Heath, the club's name before it was changed to Manchester United in the early 1900s
James Gill-Danehouse / © Getty Images
Supporters protest outside Old Trafford with the green and gold colours of Newton Heath, the club's name before it was changed to Manchester United in the early 1900s James Gill-Danehouse / © Getty Images
United are the biggest, most successful club in English football and their commercial revenue has soared under the Glazers - but to the detriment of results. To supporters, the family's tenure was epitomised by a comment made by Ed Woodward, then vice-chairman, in 2018: "Playing performance doesn't really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business." Rumfitt says: "It just seemed to symbolise a club that had its priorities all wrong."
The relationship soured further in 2021, when proposals for a breakaway European Super League (ESL) were published, with United announced as one of 12 founding members. Backlash from supporters prompted a swift U-turn. "You made very clear your opposition to the European Super League, and we have listened," Joel Glazer wrote in an open letter to supporters. "We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right."
But the backlash continued. Protests were commonplace and in May 2021, a fixture against Liverpool was postponed at short notice after a group of fans broke into Old Trafford during anti-Glazer protests, invading the pitch and causing criminal damage. Attempts to speak to fans were long overdue, and the relationship was unsalvageable.
The following March, United slipped to a 1-0 defeat at home to Atlético Madrid, a result that eliminated them from European football's most important - and most lucrative - competition, the Champions League, in the first knockout round. Then a poor run of form in the Premier League meant they were unlikely to qualify for the 2022-23 edition; they eventually finished sixth (only the top four qualify for the Champions League).
Two days later Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum - the son of the ruler of Dubai and himself chairman of Dubai Sports Council - uploaded a photo to Twitter. "I met with Avram Glazer, Co-Chairman of Manchester United, today and discussed ways to work together to further raise Dubai's profile as a global sporting hub," he wrote. "We also discussed the UAE T20 Cricket league's launch in Jan 2023 featuring Manchester United cricket team & other teams."
Some fans had been aware of Glazer's move into cricket [Avram is the only family member involved] but could not countenance the idea that he might use the United brand in doing so. United denied any link between the teams beyond common ownership, but the reaction was furious. "He must have stopped off on his way to Manchester for those fans meetings they promised post ESL!!" Gary Neville, the former club captain who has been a prominent Glazer critic as a pundit and broadcaster, tweeted. "United go out of the Champions League and he heads to Dubai to discuss Cricket."
He must have stopped off on his way to Manchester for those fans meetings they promised post ESL!!— Gary Neville (@GNev2) March 18, 2022
United go out of the Champions League and he heads to Dubai to discuss Cricket https://t.co/JCgsG5iuXV
"It certainly did get noticed," Rumfitt says. "The response was along the lines of, 'If they've got the money to buy a cricket team, why can't they spend it on fixing the leaking roof at Old Trafford?' It's not anti-cricket; it's about the Glazers and their priorities. It seemed like a statement of priorities; a signal of them moving on to thinking about the next thing."
As the attention of United supporters returned to the end of the Premier League season, Glazer had a cricket franchise to create. In late 2021, Paul Voigt, the managing director of Lancer Capital, who was tasked with building a team from scratch in an unfamiliar sport, reached out to the data analytics company CricViz, looking for assistance in recruiting a competitive squad.
He set up a call with Phil Oliver, their co-founder and managing director, who discussed the prospect of providing analytics support but quickly became a valued advisor. Soon after, he was offered a contract to become the team's chief executive, and signed up Tom Moody, the experienced Australian coach, as their director of cricket.
"The opportunity to start something afresh as a brand new team in a brand new league was obviously very attractive to me," Oliver says. "The first contact I had with them was around how I could help to construct a good cricket team to win a cricket tournament and that was a reassuring starting point. Everything else flowed from there.
"It's a privilege to inject all of your experiences over the years into a project," says Moody, "and be trusted on your judgement on personnel, support staff, working with a team, building a playing staff. It's a bit of a dream, really, to have that opportunity to work on something from the ground up."
While the Glazers' ownership of United has done little to boost their reputation among the club's tens of millions of fans worldwide, it has done wonders for their profile, making them synonymous with one of the biggest sporting brands on the planet.
Know your enemy: Liverpool fans troll Manchester United with pictures of Avram Glazer at a game at Old Trafford in August last year
David Davies / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Know your enemy: Liverpool fans troll Manchester United with pictures of Avram Glazer at a game at Old Trafford in August last year David Davies / © PA Photos/Getty Images
In early discussions, officials involved with the league were keen to play up the link with United. While "Manchester United Cricket Team" was a non-starter for copyright reasons, there were suggestions that a subtle hint to their nickname - Dubai Red Devils, for example - might slip through. Ultimately, the franchise was launched as Desert Vipers, a name with no obvious link to United - though the team have recently launched their red playing shirt with black and gold trim and a commercial partnership with Umbro, the manufacturers of United's kit from 1992 to 2002.
Both parties are keen to distance themselves from one another. "This is very much an independent operation," Oliver says. "There is a common ownership element through one member of the Glazer family, Avram Glazer, who owns Lancer Capital. That's the only link. We are totally independent. We don't have links with Manchester United. Desert Vipers are a brand new entity and are a cricket business operating in a cricket league in the Middle East."
United takes a similar line. When approached by the Cricket Monthly, a Manchester United spokesperson said: "The acquisition of a cricket franchise by Avram Glazer was unrelated to Manchester United, other than common ownership, in the same way as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers exists independently of Manchester United."
But the unofficial affiliation has clear benefits for Desert Vipers, not least in attracting players and support staff. "Being brought up on Aussie Rules, I've never really followed football," Moody says, "but I knew the background of the family in Manchester United, and if there was a team I knew more about than others, it was them. They have such a big presence on the world football stage, right back to the days of [Eric] Cantona and [David] Beckham."
Players have been excited by the idea of playing for a Glazer-owned team, too, not least the core of Englishmen who signed Vipers contracts during the summer. In late August, the day before Manchester Originals played Oval Invincibles in the Hundred at Old Trafford cricket ground, a number of Vipers squad members and staff toured the football stadium of the same name and filmed some content for the franchise's social media accounts.
"It was great to have that opportunity," Moody recalls. "We had a full-on insight into the stadium and museum and everything else." Sam Billings, a United fan who has often voiced his opinions on Twitter, wore a replica shirt with "Billings 7" on the back, and enjoyed the discomfort of Saqib Mahmood, a Liverpool supporter (who has since pulled out of the ILT20 due to an injury). Azhar Mahmood, Vipers' fast-bowling coach, brought his family with him - including his Cristiano Ronaldo-obsessed son.
The squad Desert Vipers have selected is, on paper, among the strongest in the competition, with Wanindu Hasaranga and Alex Hales among the headline recruits, and Colin Munro confirmed as captain. The coaching set-up is notably strong too, led by James Foster as head coach with Mahmood, Neil McKenzie and Carl Crowe among his support staff.
While players are excited by the opportunities it might bring, the ILT20's emergence has not been universally popular. Along with the SA20, the South African league that also launched in January 2023, it will put a further squeeze on the global schedule and risks further undermining the status of bilateral international cricket, not least with a top salary of $450,000 on offer. Paul Stirling, for example, will miss Ireland's T20I series in Zimbabwe to play for Abu Dhabi Knight Riders, while several New Zealand players - most notably Trent Boult, who will represent MI Emirates - have turned down national contracts to maximise their availability for franchise leagues.
The two leagues are in competition, and directly overlap during their inaugural seasons. While it is widely expected that one of them will move to a slightly earlier window next season, they will be judged against one another this year. Neither will want to be seen as the second-best new franchise league, and the race to sign the world's best players in July was fierce.
The ILT20 had initially planned a hybrid "AuDra" - auction-draft - signing model but instead allowed teams to recruit players directly because the SA20 had approached a number of leading players and offered them lucrative contracts ahead of the auction. With squad lists nearly finalised, it is hard to separate the two leagues in terms of player quality.
The ILT20 highlights the involvement of at least two Associate-member nation players per squad as a point of difference from other leagues, though there is no requirement for them to feature in a playing XI. Bizarrely, given the quality on show, ICC regulations mean that because the league is not being staged by one of its Full Members, matches will not have List A status and will therefore not count towards players' career T20 statistics.
Wanindu Hasaranga is among Desert Vipers' big-name signings. On paper the team is among the strongest in the ILT20
© Getty Images
Wanindu Hasaranga is among Desert Vipers' big-name signings. On paper the team is among the strongest in the ILT20 © Getty Images
A specific criticism made repeatedly against the ILT20 is that teams are permitted to field as many as nine overseas players in their XI, with a minimum of only two local, UAE players. Each franchise has signed four local players in total, and the charge levelled is that the league cannot position itself as a vehicle to cricket's growth in the UAE while providing opportunities to only the top two dozen players in the country.
Subhan Ahmed, an advisor to the ECB and the league's COO, offers a counter. "Our point of view has come out very clearly: as an Associate, we will gradually create our own heroes. Two UAE players in the XI and the other players in the squad will gain valuable exposure of sharing the dressing room with quality coaches and quality players. Full-Member Leagues around the world have huge domestic markets but still need international players. We'll start with two and then we'll build our own heroes."
Desert Vipers held open trials before recruiting their four local players - Rohan Mustafa, Sheraz Ahmad, Ronak Panoly and Ali Naseer - and insist they are committed to the development of UAE cricket. "Who's to say? Maybe in three years' time, that number might increase to three or four players [in the XI]," Moody says. "If that's the case then what we're doing as a franchise and what the league is doing in the region is growing cricket, which is good for the game."
That said, the league's unusual ownership structure does not necessarily lend itself to the same incentives to develop local players that exist in most leagues: the ILT20 is owned in a private capacity by Khalid Al Zarooni, a vice-chairman of the ECB, rather than by the board itself. MI Emirates, whose general manager Robin Singh is UAE's head coach, have signed four national-team regulars (Muhammad Waseem, Basil Hameed, Vriitya Aravind and Zahoor Khan) of whom at least two are likely to sit on the bench. Ahmed Raza, who captained UAE in last year's T20 World Cup qualifiers, does not even have a contract.
Some administrators around the world are also anxious about the ever-growing influence of the IPL. Three of the six franchises in the ILT20 (MI Emirates, Abu Dhabi Knight Riders and Dubai Capitals) and all six in the SA20 are owned by companies who own or have stakes in IPL franchises. Many working in the world of franchise cricket predict that it will not be long before players sign 12-month contracts to play for all teams within a certain ownership group, further threatening the primacy of the international game.
Oliver frames Desert Vipers' independence from an IPL franchise as a positive. "We started with a totally blank sheet of paper," he says. "We're very much aware that we are the outsiders in a few ways. We're the only team in this league without Indian ownership." The league's other two teams, Gulf Giants and Sharjah Warriors, are owned by Adani Sportsline (the sports arm of the conglomerate owned by Gautam Adani, Asia's richest man) and Capri Global (a financial services company that mainly sells loans) respectively.
"And how much did you say you paid for the team?": (from left) Joel Glazer, Co-Chairman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Roger Goodell, the US National Football League commissioner, and Oliver Kahn, CEO of Bayern Munich football club, at an NFL game in Germany last year
© Getty Images
"And how much did you say you paid for the team?": (from left) Joel Glazer, Co-Chairman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Roger Goodell, the US National Football League commissioner, and Oliver Kahn, CEO of Bayern Munich football club, at an NFL game in Germany last year © Getty Images
"With American ownership, and coming from the outside, brand new into cricket, there is a challenge there but I look at it from a positive perspective," Oliver adds. "It enables us to grow something from scratch. From our perspective here in Dubai, this is where we're building everything from. We're putting down roots. I think it really gives us the opportunity to develop with local players, local brands, Emirates Cricket Board. We see ourselves as the international team in the International League T20. That's been an opportunity we've grasped, rather than seeing that as a hurdle."
Without Indian ownership, Vipers were the only franchise to sign a player from Pakistan when teams recruited in July-August, with Azam Khan and Mohammad Hasnain both agreeing deals. They have since withdrawn with the PCB reluctant to grant No-Objection Certificates for a league they feel might in time clash with or undermine the PSL, though Ahmed insists that Pakistani players could feature in future seasons, saying: "We've restarted our discussions with PCB and we're very hopeful that Pakistani players going forwards, after the first season, will be part of this league."
The league starts on January 13, with Vipers' opening fixture against Sharjah Warriors two days later. There is a lucrative, long-term media-rights deal in place but attracting fans may prove difficult: while there are cricket fans in the UAE, attendance for fixtures that did not involve an Asian team in last year's T20 World Cup was sparse, and PSL games staged there have not always attracted large crowds (the opening two weeks of the 2014 IPL did, however, fill up stadiums).
"That will be a challenge for all teams initially," Ahmed admits. "The advantage that the league has is that 80-90% of the population here [in the UAE] are expats and most of them - especially those from the subcontinent - are die-hard cricket fans. We will have a huge diaspora we can target. Because of the quality of players we have, especially from the subcontinent, they have a huge following in the UAE."
Mike Fordham, an English administrator who has previously been involved in launching the IPL, the CPL and the Hundred, has been recruited as the ILT20's head of league operations, in part to ensure that, this time, the league actually gets off the ground. In 2018, Eoin Morgan, David Miller, Andre Russell, Shahid Afridi and Kumar Sangakkara were signed up as icon players for the inaugural UAE T20x league, but only two of the planned five franchises had been sold a month before it was due to start and the tournament was promptly scrapped.
Desert Vipers is the first cricket franchise owned by Avram Glazer but it is unlikely to be the last. He sold £70m (about $96m) of Manchester United shares in March 2021 and last month the club announced in a statement that its board was "commencing a process to explore strategic alternatives for the club… including new investment into the club, a sale, or other transactions involving the company".
Crowds turned out for the IPL in the UAE in 2014, but by and large, attendances at games in recent years have not been worth writing home about
Crowds turned out for the IPL in the UAE in 2014, but by and large, attendances at games in recent years have not been worth writing home about © BCCI
Glazer said to the Athletic in December 2022: "It's not necessarily a sale. It's a process and we're going forward with the process, so we'll see what happens." But the same publication reported shortly after that he had held talks with potential investors while watching the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and a move away from football - gradual or sudden - seems inevitable.
Rumfitt links the family's potential departure to the failed launch of the ESL. "Relegation is the thing that the Glazer family hate most," he says, "and that was the whole idea behind the ESL: to eliminate risk of relegation from the business model. Manchester United were always unlikely to be relegated from the Premier League. Failing to qualify for the Champions League is almost like a form of relegation because you are relegated to the second tier of European football. The IPL and similar competitions don't have relegation, and that's a model [the Glazers] are probably more comfortable with. It removes the risks."
The family's prospective sale of the club also sheds light on why the official line from both United and Desert Vipers has been to distance themselves from one another. According to one agent, players signed by Vipers were actively instructed not to mention the Glazers, United or football when discussing the league in interviews or on social media. Back in March, United were quick to deny Sheikh Mansoor's suggestion that the franchise could incorporate the club's name.
It is understood that Glazer and his representatives discussed the possibility of acquiring a Major League Cricket franchise in the USA but are believed to have opted not to. Instead, their focus is on the IPL. It is understood that approaches have been made to existing franchise owners to discuss the possibility of a purchase, though the $6 billion media rights deal signed last year suggests such a deal is unlikely in the near future.
"[Lancer Capital] have seen the success of IPL and they understand the franchise business," Ahmed says. "They recognise that cricket has huge potential and that's why they've ventured into this league with a very long-term view. We sold our rights [to the franchises] in perpetuity, so they're here to stay. Like the other owners, they're taking a very long-term view on this. If they see their investment in ILT20 as a success, they might buy teams in other leagues like some of our other franchisees are doing."
It might not be through the guise of a Manchester United cricket team, but one thing is clear: Avram Glazer's investment in franchise T20 cricket is just getting started.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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