By Geoffrey Smith
Investing.com -- Shares in Manchester United (NYSE:MANU) soared on Friday to their highest in over four years after a newspaper report that Spanish textiles tycoon Amancio Ortega is considering a possible bid for the company.
By 10:20 ET (15:20 GMT), Manchester United shares were up 16.3%.
The Manchester Evening News reported that Ortega, the owner of Zara and Massimo Dutti through his Inditex (BME:ITX) empire, "is a possible suitor" for the club, whose current American owners have said they are open to selling up. In addition, it reported that the Saudi Arabian government - which acquired Newcastle United last year through a vehicle of the state pension fund - would support any private Saudi bid for the club.
Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal was quoted by the newspaper as saying that "We will definitely support it if any [Saudi] private sector comes in, because we know that's going to reflect positively on sports within the kingdom.
"If there's an investor willing to do so and the numbers add up, why not?" he added.
The news - while not confirmed by any of the parties mentioned - sets up the prospect of a real auction for one of world soccer's most valuable names.
The Glazer family, which own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise in the NFL, have owned Manchester United since 2005, but the club has struggled to compete either in the domestic league or in the European Champions League since its iconic coach Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
The current owners have been repeatedly criticized by the club's fan base for starving the club of funds for investment, a criticism echoed by star player Cristiano Ronaldo in a scathing interview aired earlier this month. Ronaldo, who claimed that the Glazers "don't care" about the club, had his contract terminated with immediate effect in response.
The Glazers' mooted exit from Manchester United is part of an ongoing upheaval in the ownership of England's top-tier clubs, which have become trophy assets for some of the world's mega-rich in recent years. The man who started the trend in 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, was forced to sell London-based Chelsea FC after Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. The club ended up being bought by Todd Boehly, the former Guggenheim partner who is also a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers franchises, for around $3 billion.
Intriguingly, United's two biggest rivals are also in the process of changing hands, either wholly or partly. Private equity group Silver Lake raised its stake in United's cross-town rival Manchester City on Friday to 18%, buying out Chinese-based CMC from the holding company City Football Group, which is majority controlled by the United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
At the same time, John Henry's Fenway Sports Group has indicated it is looking at a possible sale of Liverpool FC.