The Steve Carell of Football Walks

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Much to my surprise, my brother in California has become a rabid Manchester United fan.

He and his friends pile into Killarney's, a pub by the Huntington Beach pier, whenever the team plays on TV -- even if it's the early game, which starts there at 4 a.m. They huddle around coffee, eggs and TVs until 6 a.m., when a bell rings telling them the bar is open. When the team wins, everyone gets a "victory shot," which frankly tastes nasty.

Then they stagger into the California sunshine at 7 a.m. to start their day, usually secure in the knowledge that "SAF" has done it again.

SAF is Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of the team since 1986, who announced his retirement last week. The closest thing I can come up with in this country is the late Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama, only on a global scale. Or, perhaps, the Boston Celtics' Red Auerbach, only with more titles.

Ferguson doesn't just coach the team. He picks the players, recruits them, signs them to contracts and decides when to let them go. He dominates the city, dominates the country and dominates "football" across Europe. That's why he was knighted, back in 1999, for services to football.

His designated successor, David Moyes, is the best available choice. He's a Scot, like Ferguson, the manager of Everton, about 30 miles away by car, in Liverpool. Moyes is known for getting the most out of a thin budget, often signing ManU retreads like defender Phil Neville and American goalie Tim Howard. He's also the man who sold Manchester United star Wayne Rooney to SAF a decade ago, Fergie's favorite player, a scorer who does the hard work, or "graft," all across the field or "pitch."

The controlling shareholder is Malcolm Glazer, an American who also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. When Glazer bought the team, in 2005, for 800 million pounds, he took out the cash and loaded it with debt, essentially buying it with its own money. Then he brought it to the New York Stock Exchange, where it's worth nearly $3 billion, by far the richest club in world sport.

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This valuation is possible because, unlike American teams, which are run on a socialist revenue-sharing basis, European football is pure capitalism, red in tooth and claw.

Teams own their own stadia, they share TV money based on results, they control their merchandising and some have their own networks. Ferguson has won 13 of the Premier League's 21 titles, according to the team's Web site, along with five Football Association Cups, the country's primary "knock-out" competition. There is also a pan-European competition called the Champions League, an immense money-spinner, which Ferguson has also won, twice.

The playing field in European football is always tilted toward the bigger clubs There's no salary cap and you can buy or "transfer" a player's contract from another team for cash. Many of Ferguson's rival clubs struggle to fill 20,000 seat bandboxes at the current elevated ticket prices, little Wrigley Fields in London and Liverpool, while Ferguson can depend on over 75,000 customers at home for each game. He competes head-to-head with Russian and Arab billionaires who have unlimited financing, and beats them.

Stock in Manchester United fell nearly $1/share on news of Ferguson's departure, but has since recovered almost a third of that loss. For the quarter ending in December it had revenue of 110 million pounds, about $175 million, bringing about 16% of that to the bottom line. It carries 350 million pounds of debt, over $500 million, all incurred by the Glazers, who have made the biggest score in sporting history with the team.

It's all down to Ferguson, who managed his last home game last week before over the usual sellout crowd of over 75,000. It was a 2-1 win against Swansea City, a team from Wales, and at Killarney's there were victory shots all around, doubtless mixed with a few tears.

At the time of publication, the author had only a rooting interest in the company mentioned here.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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