It all started with a brewer and a butcher. In 1892, Manchester United became an official member of England's Football League. By 1902, the club was about to go into bankruptcy, only to be saved by a wealthy local brewer named J.H. Davies. He poured money into the team and oversaw the construction of its striking new stadium, called Old Trafford. United won a bunch of trophies and earned the nickname "Moneybags United" from critics who thought the club was just spending its way to success.
Some 50 years later, Louis Edwards was making his living selling meat in Manchester. While he wasn't an oil baron or an inheritor of a familial fortune, Edwards did occupy an exploitable economic niche. World War II had just ended, and the United Kingdom's Treasury was nearly bankrupt. The country couldn't afford imports, and austerity measures kicked in. Except, everyone still had to eat and everyone still wanted to eat meat, so the neighborhood butcher had the one thing that everyone else lacked: money.
And what do you do when you're the only one with money? You buy your local football club.
At the time, most clubs were joint-owned by "normal" people: Upon their inception, club shares would be given out to people in the local community and then passed down the family line. Clubs still rarely made money at the time, and you didn't collect a sizable dividend on your ownership. You just felt pride -- or you forgot that you were an owner.
Edwards eventually found a copy of Manchester United's share register and paid an infamously corrupt local councilor to go around the city, knocking on the doors of shareholders, offering to buy up their shares for a little bit of money and -- seriously -- a little bit of meat. Plenty of these people didn't even realize they were shareholders -- a deceased husband or a parent or grandparent had been given an ownership stake, and the certificate was passed on in the same way a lamp or a wig might be -- so it wasn't hard to persuade them to sell.
By 1964, Louis Edwards had secured control of what would eventually become the richest club in the world.
A succession of improbable events and once-in-a-generation individuals would combine to turn United into a team that was seemingly too big to fail. "The problem for business strategy is that, while we can understand how Manchester United became successful, it is harder to explain how to copy it," the economist Stefan Szymanski wrote in a 1998 paper titled "Why Is Manchester United So Successful?" for Business Strategy Review.
"The analysis shows that much of what explains Manchester United's success is contingent, driven by good and bad fortune, and hardly the outcome of a conscious strategic plan."
While that is true, there's one animating impulse that, well, united all of United's stewards over time: the desire to make money. It's obvious now -- and cute, even -- but Manchester United was one of the first clubs that viewed itself as a means to generate revenue. By making more money than its competitors, the club won more games than its competitors, and so the team became more popular than its competitors, and so the club made more money than its competitors ... and on and on until today.
The accounting firm Deloitte has published an annual leaderboard of the richest clubs in the world for the past 16 years. United have never been lower than fourth, and they've been the richest club in England 16 times out of 16. That's about the only thing they've been winning in recent years. They're currently in eighth place in the Premier League, and super-sub-turned-interim-turned-permanent-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was finally shown the door.
This team can obviously improve, but how much better can they actually be?