Manchester United said on Tuesday it was commencing a process to explore strategic alternatives, including a new investment or a potential sale, 17 years after the American Glazer family bought the English Premier League soccer club.
The Glazer family is working with financial advisers on the process, which could lead to a partial sale of the Old Trafford club or investments including stadium and infrastructure redevelopment, the club said in a statement.
Manchester United fans have been clamouring for a change of ownership and the Glazers have been the target of intense criticism as the team have gone five years without winning a trophy. The last silverware they won was the Europa League and League Cup back in 2017.
"As we seek to continue building on the club’s history of success, the board has authorized a thorough evaluation of strategic alternatives," Avram Glazer and Joel Glazer, executive co-chairmen and directors of United, said in the statement.
"We will evaluate all options to ensure that we best serve our fans and that Manchester United maximizes the significant growth opportunities available to the club today and in the future," the statement said.
In August, British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe had expressed interest in buying United, Reuters reported. At the time, Elon Musk had also joked about planning to buy the club.
Wealthy Asian tycoons, especially those from China, have been buying European teams in recent years including Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers and Italy's Inter Milan.
However, football clubs have since been deemed unfavorable assets by China and any major overseas purchase would seem unlikely at the moment, said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based author of "Sporting Superpower", a book about China's sports ambitions.
"It's almost impossible to see how any Chinese-related entity could justify a purchase of this magnitude in the current climate," he said. "... with China only just now facing up to the realities of COVID-19, which makes the entire economic environment that much more uncertain, no state body would approve this kind of deal."
The owners are under pressure with United sitting fifth in the Premier League halfway through the season, which has been suspended because of the current Qatar World Cup.
Manchester United shares jumped as much as 20% after Sky News first reported on the sale process, giving the club a market capitalisation of $2.6 billion.
The company was worth $2.5 billion at the close of U.S. trading on Tuesday. At its peak as a public company, it had a market capitalisation of $4.3 billion in 2018.
Also on Tuesday, the club said that star striker Cristiano Ronaldo will leave with immediate effect, marking a bitter end to the Portugal captain's second spell at Old Trafford after he said he felt betrayed by the club.
The Glazers bought the club for 790 million pounds ($939.07 million) in 2005 in a highly leveraged deal which has been criticised for loading debt onto the club.
United has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 2012, when the Glazers sold 10% of their holding via the listing and have sold more shares since.
The Raine Group is acting as financial adviser and Latham & Watkins LLP is the legal adviser to Manchester United.
Rothschild and Co. is acting as financial adviser to the Glazer family shareholders.
Among the fan protests against the Glazers was one in May 2021 that forced the postponement of a home match against Liverpool, one of the club's biggest rivals. It was the first Premier League match to be postponed because of a protest.
United and Liverpool were among a group of big clubs that said they wanted to establish a European Super League in April 2021 but then withdrew, partly because of objections from many fans in England.
Liverpool are also "exploring a sale" according to club chairman Tom Werner. In May 2022, Chelsea Football Club was sold to a consortium led by an investment group fronted by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital for $3.2 billion (2.5 billion pounds).
United finished sixth last season in their worst Premier League campaign in terms of points earned, failing to qualify for the lucrative European Champions League competition.
They won the last of their record 20 top-flight league titles in 2013, the year the great Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager after more than 26 years in charge.
The club have hired Dutch manager Erik ten Hag from Ajax Amsterdam in a bid to turn around their fortunes.
($1 = 0.8413 pounds)
(Reporting by Jose Joseph and Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru and Kane Wu in Hong Kong; Editing by Ken Ferris, Grant McCool and Stephen Coates)