By Manasi Pathak
(Reuters) – Jim Ratcliffe’s company INEOS has formally entered the bidding process to buy Premier League soccer club Manchester United, a spokesperson for the chemical firm said on Tuesday.
The Glazer family, United’s U.S. owners, said in November they had begun looking at options for the 20-times English champions, including new investment or a potential sale, 17 years after they bought the Old Trafford club.
In August, British billionaire Ratcliffe, a long-time fan of the club, expressed interest in buying United, Reuters reported.
“I can confirm that we have formally put ourselves into the process,” an INEOS spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.
United declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
The Times newspaper, which first reported the news, said formal bids were expected to start next month, with United potentially changing hands by the end of the season.
Interest from the United States, the Middle East and Asia is also expected.
Manchester United’s shares rose 1.2% in New York trading on Tuesday afternoon.
INEOS has long been involved in sport, with the company acting as principal partners to eight-times Formula One champions Mercedes, owning the INEOS Grenadiers cycling team and serving as performance partner to the New Zealand rugby team.
The energy company’s interest in the United sale process comes after the group also bought French Ligue 1 club Nice in 2019.
Ratcliffe’s name was widely mentioned among United fans as someone many would welcome, although there are fears he might be priced out with some estimates putting the club’s worth at more than $4.5 billion.
The head of chemical company INEOS also failed last year in an attempt to buy London soccer club Chelsea, which was purchased by an investment group led by American Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital.
United fans have been clamouring for a change of ownership and the Glazers, who also own the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have been the target of intense criticism as the team last won silverware back in 2017, lifting the Europa League and League Cup trophies.
The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) said in November that the club needed new owners and fresh investment to halt years of decline and fans should be given a real say in how it is run in future.
In April, thousands protested outside Old Trafford, lighting flares and singing songs demanding the Glazers “get out of the club”.
United’s net debt, another bone of contention among fans, had grown by nearly 23% to 515 million pounds ($565.78 million) by September.
The team, managed by Erik ten Hag, are fourth in the league standings on 38 points after 18 games, one point behind their local rivals Manchester City but nine adrift of leaders Arsenal.
They play at Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
United’s rivals Liverpool are also looking to attract investment after chairman Tom Werner said in November that their owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) were exploring a sale of the club, but there was no urgency to complete any potential deal.
Bloomberg News reported this week that United, Tottenham Hotspur or Liverpool were being targeted by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) over a potential acquisition.
Spurs, however, said “there is no truth in reports that a meeting took place regarding the sale of equity in the club”.
QSI is currently the owner of French champions Paris St Germain and has a stake in Portuguese soccer club SC Braga.
(Reporting by Manasi Pathak in Bengaluru and Andres Estebaran Gonzalez in London; Editing by Ken Ferris)