By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Shares in Manchester United priced below expectations and were essentially flat in early trading on Friday, a disappointing stock market debut for the world's most famous soccer club and most valuable sporting team.
Manchester United sold 16.7 million shares as planned, but at a price of $14 each, below the expected range of $16 to $20. The stock rose 5 cents in initial trades on the New York Stock Exchange and then flattened out.
A mystery to most Americans but a household name in most of the world, the club listed on a U.S. exchange after pulling a planned IPO in Singapore earlier this year.
The offering valued the 19-times English champions at $2.3 billion but shaved as much as $100 million off the proceeds that had been expected for the team and its owners.
The $233 million ultimately raised in the IPO will be split equally between the 134-year-old club and its owners, the Florida-based Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team among other interests.
The loss of as much as $50 million in expected proceeds for the club will be a blow as it copes with a heavy debt burden and seeks to buy new players, who cost tens of millions of dollars each. United had debt of 423 million pounds ($661 million) at the end of March.
A group of United fans who are campaigning for greater involvement in the ownership of the club jeered the Glazers.
"It would seem all the analysis of the true valuation was correct; the Glazers and their advisers were being far too ambitious - or perhaps greedy - and the true value of the shares should be around $10 rather than the $20 the Glazers were seeking," said Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST).
"It means less money coming into the club to pay down the Glazers' debt and, more annoyingly, the Glazers still take further money out of the club for their own personal means," he added.
MUST is calling for the Glazers to sell and allow fans to play a greater role in the club's ownership.
The Red Knights, a group of wealthy fans including Goldman Sachs head of asset management Jim O'Neill, weighed a bid for United two years ago but were put off by the price.
The Glazers bought United for 790 million pounds in a highly leveraged deal in 2005, taking it private after 14 years on the London Stock Exchange.
Some fans argue that the cost of the debt has forced up ticket prices for the club, which draws sellout crowds of around 76,000 at its Old Trafford Stadium and claims 659 million followers across the world.
They also say repayments have hindered the team's ability to compete with big-spending rivals on the pitch. The Premier League season begins in just over a week, when United fans will be able to demonstrate their feelings over the club's ownership.
MUST has called for a boycott of the club's sponsors over the IPO. United's commercial appeal was underlined last week when it signed a $559 million deal with General Motors to have the Chevrolet brand on its famous red shirts from 2014.
United suffered a rare barren season last year, losing their Premier League title to crosstown rival Manchester City, whose owner, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, has pumped 800 million pounds into reviving what had long been United's poor relation.
Yet Forbes still ranks 134-year-old United as the world's most valuable sports team by a wide margin, part of the attraction for the American owners in the first place.
With so much tied to success on the field, soccer clubs are an inherently risky investment.
"I didn't even look at it. I would never, ever invest in a football club," said the head of UK equities at an investment house running around 100 billion pounds in assets.
Italian champions Juventus is one of the few European soccer clubs with a stock market listing, and it is valued at only around $240 million, according to Reuters data.
But as one consultant noted, the ultimate goal of a sports team is not to be a good business, but to win trophies.
"Manchester United itself has a very good business model and has been able to be profitable," said Emmanuel Hembert of management consultancy A.T. Kearney. "If there is one club to invest in it would be Manchester United, but being the best economically among your peers may not be enough."
(Additional reporting by Sinead Cruise in London; Writing by Keith Weir in London and Ben Berkowitz in Boston; Editing by Will Waterman and Phil Berlowitz)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp