Britain's fabled Manchester United football club was headed for a listing on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday via an IPO aimed at raising $300 million for the team and its American owners.
But fans and analysts had their doubts about whether the share sale would improve the team's finances or its competitiveness on the field, after the heavily leveraged takeover by the Miami-based Glazer family seven years ago left it mired in debt.
Underwriters led by Jefferies were expected to price the 16.7 million-share issue at between $16 and $20 a share; the shares are expected to begin trading sometime Friday after subscriptions close.
That would leave the legendary football franchise valued at $2.9 billion, far more than any of its rivals, including Real Madrid, which sports much larger profits.
The shares are expected to hit a relatively strong market on Friday, the US IPO having been delayed from July due to weakness on the exchanges.
Last year the club sought to tap into its Asian fan base with a much larger share sale in either Hong Kong or Singapore, but that effort failed to gain approval.
"We expect it to happen tomorrow," said an official at Renaissance Capital, which specializes in IPO analysis.
Home to Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, United is the most successful club in English football history with a massive global fan base, especially in Asia.
But it has struggled with the debt loaded onto the team's books since the tycoon Malcolm Glazer and his family, Miami-based investors in sports teams and real estate, took over in 2005.
The debts, critics have said, have steadily eroded its ability to compete for top talent in an ever-spiraling player transfer market.
Tensions over United's finances boiled over in 2010, when the club's liabilities topped one billion pounds ($1.55 billion) and fans rebelled at management, launching protests aimed at denying the club revenues.
But debts have been slashed in the past two years, and profits rebounded with the team's narrow loss of the Premier League title to cross-town rivals Manchester City this year.
According to the prospectus, team profits for the nine months to March 31 were 38 million pounds ($60 million), nearly triple a year earlier.
But that adds up to just 24 pence (38 cents) per share for the nine months, giving the company a rich price-to-earnings ratio usually reserved for high-growth technology firms.
Moreover, the prospectus said the newly-formed Caymans-registered company that will control the club, Manchester United Ltd, has no plans to pay a dividend.
But the club's name -- it will trade under the symbol MANU -- and fame underpin ostensibly massive stored value that the owners hope will bring in strong support.
"For 134 years now we've been one of the most successful and iconic sports teams in the world," said executive vice chairman Ed Woodward in an IPO presentation.
"We generate inherently compelling content; we've developed into the global brand in sports. And as a result of that we have a whole line of partners knocking on our door and trying to partner up with us."
Yet only half of the IPO proceeds will go towards paying down the some of the current 423 million pound ($660 million) debt burden.
The other half will go to the Glazers, who are contributing 8.33 million of their own "A" shares to the offering.
Meanwhile they will retain a lock on "B" shares which have 10 times the voting power of "A" shares, meaning their hold on the company and its finances will be barely diluted in the IPO.
Fans of the club and British football have strongly criticized the share sale.
"The IPO is a huge wasted opportunity to stop this enormous outflow of money from Manchester United," said Andy Green, author of the Andersred blog, which focuses on the management of the team.
"The share sale is a bad deal for fans, investors and the club," said the Manchester United Supporters' Trust, which advocates fan ownership of the team.
"For the club, this is a bad deal because more than half of the funds raised will now be paid direct to the Glazer family."
"For fans, it is a bad deal because it is a missed opportunity for more equitable ownership of our club, with proper distribution of voting rights.
"By floating shares at this inflated price, it provides a poisoned pill which might deter any more enlightened owners from buying the club in future."