Why Manchester United’s On-Pitch Decline Could lead To Rapid Off-Field Decline

Everton FC v Manchester United - Premier League

Ed Woodward has overseen the growth of Manchester United as a commercial operation

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While a relentless focus on improving Manchester United's commercial position has clearly paid dividends, there has been, and will continue to be, a knock-on effect on fortunes on the pitch at Old Trafford.

The club's latest accounts show that, since 2013, the wage bill has ballooned from £181 million to £332 million. This has, obviously, not translated onto the pitch where quality is clearly lacking.

When you consider Manchester United won the Premier League in 2013 and finished sixth in 2019, they have effectively increased their wage bill by £149 million to drop five places in the table.

Last Saturday, as Newcastle debutant Matty Longstaff’s low effort nestled into the bottom corner of the net, it hammered home just how far Manchester United had fallen.

The team, although hit by injuries, struggled throughout the match and did not record a shot on target until the second half in an abject display.

Heading into the international break, they are just two points above the drop zone in 17th with eight games played.

With no Premier League title since 2013 and no trophy of any description since the 2017 Europa League final, it would be hard to describe the club as one of Europe’s biggest.

That, however, is not how executive vice chairman Ed Woodward saw it in his September 2018 address to shareholders: “We’re the biggest sports team in the world as measured by number of fans, and we know that’s a position that requires continued effort and investment to maintain.

"Our board, our investors and everyone at the club are aligned with the fans on what we need to do on the pitch and that is to win trophies.”

While the second part of that pays lip service to football matters, it is clear Manchester United are highly motivated by their commercial machine.

This is, of course, a regime that values financial firepower as much as footballing firepower.

For all that Alexis Sanchez-with five goals in 45 games over 18 disastrous months-was an on-field flop, off it he set a record for shirt sales from a January signing. His £560,000-a-week wages may be astronomical by any reasonable standard, but they paled in comparison to his initial commercial appeal.

Woodward said after the club's second quarter 2018 earnings report: "Alexis Sanchez has set a new January signing record in terms of shirt sales - three times that previous record.

"This trade (Sanchez's move to United) generated some interesting social media stats.

"It was the biggest United post on Instagram with two million likes and comments, the most shared United Facebook post ever, the most retweeted United post ever and #Alexis7 was the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide.”

A £37.0 million rise in broadcasting revenue over the past year will likely be offset this season due to no Champions League participation.

This, again, is the starkest example of how Old Trafford’s negligence to on-field matters will directly contribute to their declining powers off it. Less broadcast money means less exposure and less opportunity to show off the club’s plethora of partners.

The reported matchday revenue of £100.8 million dwarfs every other Premier League club-Arsenal are the closest on £98.5 million-but there has been no significant rise across six years. In 2013, the last year of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, it stood at £108 million, as outlined by PriceOfFootball.

Without significant investment in Old Trafford and modernising the matchday experience, the club will likely fall behind over coming seasons.

Tottenham have the benefit of a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium, while Arsenal and Manchester City also have modern grounds geared towards hospitality and matchday experience in a way that Old Trafford, as iconic as it is, simply isn’t.

There will also be concern that commercial revenue has begun to plateau. A series of big-money sponsorship deals saw revenue rise from £197 in 2015 to £268 in 2016, but three years on it stands at £275 million and will not grow significantly until those long-term deals come up for renegotiation.

Indeed, the ability of the club to increase their demands in renegotiations will be impacted by their on-field position. If they are not regularly winning trophies or participating in the Champions League, they will find it harder to strike deals of similarly astronomic value going forward.

Yes, they currently have the highest revenue of all top six clubs and yes, Old Trafford remains a weekly sell-out, but their numbers are standing still while the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City are making up the ground rapidly-in part due to sustained on-pitch success.

While Ed Woodward has revolutionised what a football club is capable of as a commercial operation, it is clear this has come at a cost on the field. Should this not be corrected swiftly, they will soon start paying the price off it too.

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While a relentless focus on improving Manchester United's commercial position has clearly paid dividends, there has been, and will continue to be, a knock-on effect on fortunes on the pitch at Old Trafford.

The club's latest accounts show that, since 2013, the wage bill has ballooned from £181 million to £332 million. This has, obviously, not translated onto the pitch where quality is clearly lacking.

When you consider Manchester United won the Premier League in 2013 and finished sixth in 2019, they have effectively increased their wage bill by £149 million to drop five places in the table.

Last Saturday, as Newcastle debutant Matty Longstaff’s low effort nestled into the bottom corner of the net, it hammered home just how far Manchester United had fallen.

The team, although hit by injuries, struggled throughout the match and did not record a shot on target until the second half in an abject display.

Heading into the international break, they are just two points above the drop zone in 17th with eight games played.

With no Premier League title since 2013 and no trophy of any description since the 2017 Europa League final, it would be hard to describe the club as one of Europe’s biggest.

That, however, is not how executive vice chairman Ed Woodward saw it in his September 2018 address to shareholders: “We’re the biggest sports team in the world as measured by number of fans, and we know that’s a position that requires continued effort and investment to maintain.

"Our board, our investors and everyone at the club are aligned with the fans on what we need to do on the pitch and that is to win trophies.”

While the second part of that pays lip service to football matters, it is clear Manchester United are highly motivated by their commercial machine.

This is, of course, a regime that values financial firepower as much as footballing firepower.

For all that Alexis Sanchez-with five goals in 45 games over 18 disastrous months-was an on-field flop, off it he set a record for shirt sales from a January signing. His £560,000-a-week wages may be astronomical by any reasonable standard, but they paled in comparison to his initial commercial appeal.

Woodward said after the club's second quarter 2018 earnings report: "Alexis Sanchez has set a new January signing record in terms of shirt sales - three times that previous record.

"This trade (Sanchez's move to United) generated some interesting social media stats.

"It was the biggest United post on Instagram with two million likes and comments, the most shared United Facebook post ever, the most retweeted United post ever and #Alexis7 was the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide.”

A £37.0 million rise in broadcasting revenue over the past year will likely be offset this season due to no Champions League participation.

This, again, is the starkest example of how Old Trafford’s negligence to on-field matters will directly contribute to their declining powers off it. Less broadcast money means less exposure and less opportunity to show off the club’s plethora of partners.

The reported matchday revenue of £100.8 million dwarfs every other Premier League club-Arsenal are the closest on £98.5 million-but there has been no significant rise across six years. In 2013, the last year of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, it stood at £108 million, as outlined by PriceOfFootball.

Without significant investment in Old Trafford and modernising the matchday experience, the club will likely fall behind over coming seasons.

Tottenham have the benefit of a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium, while Arsenal and Manchester City also have modern grounds geared towards hospitality and matchday experience in a way that Old Trafford, as iconic as it is, simply isn’t.

There will also be concern that commercial revenue has begun to plateau. A series of big-money sponsorship deals saw revenue rise from £197 in 2015 to £268 in 2016, but three years on it stands at £275 million and will not grow significantly until those long-term deals come up for renegotiation.

Indeed, the ability of the club to increase their demands in renegotiations will be impacted by their on-field position. If they are not regularly winning trophies or participating in the Champions League, they will find it harder to strike deals of similarly astronomic value going forward.

Yes, they currently have the highest revenue of all top six clubs and yes, Old Trafford remains a weekly sell-out, but their numbers are standing still while the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City are making up the ground rapidly-in part due to sustained on-pitch success.

While Ed Woodward has revolutionised what a football club is capable of as a commercial operation, it is clear this has come at a cost on the field. Should this not be corrected swiftly, they will soon start paying the price off it too.

I specialise in sports news in the UK and across continental Europe. I also write for UK national papers and have a background in sailing, rugby and football as my main ...