Manchester United: Are the football finance kings in danger of becoming a busted flush with an ageing business model?

Michael Broughton
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Manchester United financial results
Could United be making even more money from their digital followers? (Source: Getty)

Earlier this week, Manchester United announced a staggering £515m in revenues.

I tip my hat to their commercial team, because whilst the TV money flowing through from the Premier League represents a significant chunk of this you have to admire how they have built competitive advantage on others.

When you consider that their EBITDA figure is £192m it is even more impressive. It seems that much of this is free cash flow as they are able to spend significant sums in the transfer market yet not flinch when it comes to financial fair play.

The level of debt in the club imposed by the Glazers' ownership remains a source of consternation for many fans, but it's hard to argue that the club is not in a stronger position now than when they took over. There is significant investment in the playing squad, continued commercial growth and they have — with the exception of David Moyes — hired top managers.

Read more: Manchester United net half a billion pounds of revenue, breaking Premier League records and expectations along the way

However, when flicking through the investor presentation on the club's corporate website — as a plc they are obligated to make these things available — I noticed that they still claim to have over 650m ‘followers’ around the world, a claim first made by the club in 2012. This data is both out of date now and they are careful to differentiate a fan from a follower. No doubt there is pride also at having 71m likes on Facebook and 8.7m followers on Twitter.

Yet if you take United's own numbers at face value then, unfortunately, their revenue figures look pretty pathetic.

78p per follower…let that sink in for a minute. That is not a number many burgeoning tech start-ups could use to woo big venture capital.

That the best commercially run club in the Premier League is only able to generate 78p per follower is terrifyingly low. That's less than a single song on iTunes. Most games on mobile media offer in-app purchases that make such a number look ridiculous.

Read more: United named most valuable club in the world but must win trophies with Jose Mourinho to stay at the top

A more realistic estimate would project around 10m people on United's database – around a seventh of what Mark Zuckerberg has via the club's Facebook page. So Manchester United could potentially be making more money for Facebook than they do for themselves. Startling isn’t it.

Of course, the way I like to look at is that United are making £51 per customer that they actually know about – which offers enormous potential if they can adapt their business model to reach the rest of those ‘followers’ in a meaningful way.

The question isn't whether United are doing a good job — clearly they are — the question is whether the underlying model they work off is still relevant in today's social media economy?

Remember that the model that they work off is still effectively the same one as was created in 1992 when Rupert Murdoch came along and changed things up (the clubs agreed to it but it wasn't their plan). Sky was the catalyst for enormous change and the numbers have continued to increase.

Almost 25 years later is it time for the model to change again?

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