Musk jokes about buying Manchester United, sending its stock surging

By Emma O’Brien, Peter Vercoe and Katanga Johnson

Elon Musk joked on Twitter about buying Manchester United, then let 4 1/2 hours go by before clarifying he was kidding about purchasing the English football club listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Musk, who’s the world’s richest person, briefly lifted the gloom over the club’s shares by tweeting on Tuesday: “I’m buying Manchester United ur (sic) welcome,” to his 103 million followers, adding later that it was a “joke.”

Even so, the 51-year-old Tesla billionaire’s musings ignited Manchester United shares, which briefly jumped as much as 17 per cent in after hours trading before ending Wednesday at $US13.67, up nearly 7 per cent on Tuesday’s close.

You’re joking! Lisandro Martinez and Cristiano Ronaldo during Manchester United’s humiliation against Brentford on August 13.
You’re joking! Lisandro Martinez and Cristiano Ronaldo during Manchester United’s humiliation against Brentford on August 13.Credit:Getty

Bloomberg News reported hours after Musk’s posts that the Glazer family that’s owned Manchester United since 2005 would consider selling a minority stake, citing people familiar with the matter.

Musk has a long track record of tweeting in jest. He’s also run afoul of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, most infamously by claiming in 2018 he had the funding to take Tesla private. That led to securities fraud charges and a settlement agreement that Tesla would appoint an in-house “Twitter sitter” who would pre-approve posts containing material information about the company.

More recently, Musk got the SEC’s attention with a May 17 tweet saying his $US44 billion ($64 billion) takeover of Twitter couldn’t move forward until its CEO proved claims about the number of bots on the service were accurate. In a June 2 letter, the agency asked why Musk didn’t amend an earlier SEC filing to reflect an apparent material change in his plan to acquire the company. He sought to terminate the deal last month, leading Twitter to sue in an attempt to make him complete the transaction.

Manchester United has traded on the NYSE since 2012. Joke or otherwise, Musk’s tweets are likely to draw fresh scrutiny from the SEC, given the share price move and Musk’s history of skirting US securities rules, legal experts said.

“When someone in his position makes comments about buying an entity, people start speculating: ‘Is he joking, not joking, half-joking?’” said Hui Chen, an ethics and compliance consultant who served as the first compliance counsel expert at the US Department of Justice. “His actions have major impact on markets, and he really needs to be cognisant about the potential implications.”


Jacob Frenkel, a Washington-based attorney at Dickinson Wright and a former SEC official, said the tweet “may have been a joke to some, but it will not be to the regulators.

“Regulators will want to know what motivated the tweets,” he said, adding the market regulator would likely take a hard look at trading around the tweet.

SEC representatives declined to comment. Attorneys for Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the bar for pursuing an enforcement action is high, said several other attorneys.

Since Musk is not a Manchester United executive he does not have the same legal obligations to its shareholders as he does to those of Tesla, and there is no indication that he or anyone close to him has a major financial interest in the soccer club.

And while Musk’s comments on Tesla are subject to special legal checks under a deal he struck with the SEC to resolve its allegations that his 2018 “funding secured” tweet broke the agency’s rules, US free speech protections afford Musk plenty of leeway to comment on issues beyond his electric carmaker.

In addition, his clarification that the tweet on Manchester United was a joke addresses the question of his intentions.

All told, it is unlikely that the SEC would be able to demonstrate that he was trying to commit securities fraud, based on the available information, said several attorneys.

“At least on the facts we know, I suspect it will be difficult to prove that Musk … acted with intent to deceive,” said Robert Frenchman, a partner at Mukasey Frenchman.

Others said that Musk’s track record of whimsical twitter commentary – which has ranged from an April Fool’s Day quip about Tesla going bankrupt to aliens and the zombie apocalypse – could also be cited in his defence were regulators or other parties to take issue with the tweet.

Manchester United is valued at $US4.6 billion, according to Forbes. In the most recent sale of a Premier League powerhouse, a group led by billionaire Todd Boehly agreed to buy Chelsea FC from sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich for £4.25 billion ($7.4 billion), including future investments.

Musk did tweet that if he were to buy any one team, it would be Manchester United because it was his favourite growing up. Andrew Ward, the club’s director of media relations and public affairs, declined to comment.

While Manchester United has won a record 13 Premier League titles, it currently ranks last on the table after a disastrous start to the season under new coach Erik ten Hag. The club lost its first two matches of the season, falling 4-0 to Brentford this past weekend.

Fans have protested the performance of the club under the ownership of the Glazer family, which also owns the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the opening home match of the season — a 2-1 loss to Brighton — a large group of devotees walked toward the stadium with banners that read: “Fight greed. Fight for United. Fight Glazers” and “We want our club back,” the Telegraph newspaper reported.

Manchester United won its last Premier League title under legendary coach Alex Ferguson in the 2012-13 season, and has since fallen behind crosstown rival Manchester City, which has won four of the past five titles. Wantaway star striker Cristiano Ronaldo will be allowed to leave Manchester United if he can find a club to buy him, the Telegraph reported on Tuesday.


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