TAMPA, Fla. — Even a continent away, the unrest in Manchester looks vaguely familiar.
A beloved sports franchise run by unpopular and tone-deaf owners? Been there, booed that.
There may not be another sports market in the world that has seen cheaper (CULVERHOUSE!), less fan-friendly (NAIMOLI!), more clueless (KOULES!) franchise owners than Tampa Bay.
So, yeah, we feel the pain of Manchester United fans worldwide.
We just can’t support it.
If the Glazer family is universally reviled by soccer fans in the UK, it is mostly respected by football fans in the bay area. Two Super Bowl trophies, a handful of Hall of Famers and three years’ worth of Tom Brady will do that for an ownership group.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Glazers are adored in Tampa Bay. Let’s face it, it’s hard to love someone who acts like there is not enough Purell in the world to shake your hand.
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But when it comes to qualities we seek in our franchise owners, the Glazers have a decent report card. They have, for the most part, spent money. They have stayed in the shadows and avoided unnecessary meddling. They have been at the forefront of minority hirings. They have given back to the community.
(If it wasn’t for that 12-year playoff drought, you might have even talked me into getting matching Joel and Bryan tattoos.)
So why the disconnect?
How come fans in England are ecstatic that the Glazers may sell Manchester United, while Bucs fans are content to wave blindly at the tinted windows of the family’s passing Mercedes SUVs?
Is it simply a question of winning? Sure, that’s a big part of it. The Bucs have been on an upswing since the hiring of Bruce Arians, and Manchester United has been in a decade-long funk.
But it’s also about history. And expectations. And understanding a fan base.
Manchester United is a crown jewel in European soccer, while the Bucs were the sorriest franchise in NFL history when patriarch Malcolm Glazer purchased the team in 1995. And that starting point makes a huge difference.
Within a year, Glazer had hired Tony Dungy as coach. Within two years, the Bucs had their first winning season since 1982. Within seven years, they had five playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title.
That kind of turnaround purchases a lot of goodwill, even for owners who are deliberately aloof and mysterious.
Unfortunately for the Glazers, that formula didn’t work in England.
While Manchester United enjoyed initial success when the Glazers purchased the club in 2005, the championships quickly dried up. Fans were incensed that the family’s leveraged buyout of the team required enormous loans, and they blamed the Glazers for wasting hundreds of millions on debt-service payments instead of investing more on the roster and facilities.
Instead of quirky, the Glazers looked shady. Instead of unparalleled heights, the team saw unexpected lows. Instead of building trust, the Glazers invited suspicion.
So are Man U fans being unreasonable? Have the Glazers gotten a raw deal in England?
Not at all.
If they do sell the team, the Glazers will have enough cash to make a century’s worth of insults seem trivial. A purchase price of roughly $1.4 billion in 2005 should at least be tripled by the time suitors start showing up at the Glazers’ doors.
The timing is also important because Old Trafford stadium is due for major renovations in the coming years and the Glazers can bail before incurring those costs.
In the end, sports is a service industry. The customers/fans decide whether a team is worth following and worth their discretionary spending.
Folks in Manchester have made it clear they are not happy with the Glazers’ stewardship, and there doesn’t seem to be a pathway to reconciliation.
I can’t say that I blame United fans. But it also has no bearing on the Bucs.
During the Glazers’ ownership reign, Tampa Bay has won more Super Bowls than 24 other NFL teams. They have won more playoff games than 19 other teams. That’s an impressive track record for a franchise that had zero Super Bowl appearances and one playoff victory before the Glazers arrived.
And that doesn’t even take into account the reality that outside ownership groups were buzzing around the Bucs in the mid-1990s. There was a real possibility the team could have been moved if the Glazers hadn’t shown up and if Hillsborough County voters weren’t amenable (or was it coerced?) when it came to investing in a new stadium.
So, yes, the Glazers have been good owners in Tampa Bay. They’ve been good neighbors, too.
At least, it looks that way from across their moat.