December 3, 2022

Man U chairman bought and sold Green Magazine in 1998

A protest by United fans at Old Trafford football ground against the Glazer family’s ownership of the team, Manchester, UK. April 24, 2021. Trinity statue and Manchester United stadium in background. (Photo: John B Hewitt/Shutterstock)

The Glazer family is very much in the news right now, because of their announced intention to sell Manchester United. So I thought I’d share a story about Team Chairman Avi Glazer. Not just for the search engine juuj, but because I’ve never told this story. And with all the Haterade being poured on the Glazers—#GlazersOut has trended since at least 2019—I think this really does add some nuance to an executive who’s been portrayed as a comic book villain. That portrayal has only intensified in the wake of Ronaldo’s announced departure from the team, with arguably the greatest ever footballer saying goodbye to $18 million rather than spend another moment in Glazer’s employ.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In the mid 90s, just as the internet was becoming ubiquitous, most companies didn’t know what to do with it. Publishers especially were leery of cannibalizing their lucrative advertising and circulation models in exchange for the massive numbers of non-paying eyeballs that a worldwide audience could provide.

With the industry’s major players like Hearst, Condé Nast, and Time Inc. slow to embrace the medium, the door was cracked open for web native publishers. Slate, suck.com, Salon, and a hundred other innovative publications seemed to spring up overnight, many led by serious journalists with an entrepreneurial bent.

So another of those pop-up publishers was word.com. Marisa Bowe was a high-integrity quirky voice banging around the Brooklyn writer scene. Avi Glazer started a company called Zap, and hired Marisa and her word.com to anchor what was meant to be a diverse online publishing empire.

Family patriarch Malcolm Glazer had earned his money in the decidedly unglamorous business of extracting fish proteins with a company called Zapata (that’s why his son Avi called his publishing startup “Zap.”) They parlayed their success into ownership of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, paying a then-record $192 million in 1995 for a perennially losing team in what was the second smallest NFL market after Green Bay. That was a shrewd investment, of course, as Tampa is now among America’s fastest growing cities and the Glazers turned it from a team that had won only 89 games in 19 years to the most consistent winners in football, including two Super Bowl championships.

Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo during football match Atalanta vs Manchester Utd, UCL matchday 4 , Gewiss stadium, Italy, Nov 2 2021. (Photo: Fabrizio Andrea Bertani/Shutterstock)

They showed a similar far-sightedness in buying Man U. From 2003-2006, the family spent 790 million pounds to buy out the stakes of their partners. British businessmen chuckled about the way the Americans got taken advantage of. Not sure who’s laughing now as the world’s most valuable team is looking at bids said to begin at $5 billion and possibly topping out at $9 billion. Avi began running the team in 2006 when Malcolm had a stroke.

So back to the late 90s. At the time, I was the founder and editor of Green Magazine. This was a personal finance magazine but the twist was that, although the content would basically be the same shit covered in Money or Kiplinger’s, the voice was informed by my love of fanzines and the DIY ethos. Punk rock indie illustrators would find themselves drawing cartoons to illustrate lessons about how a stock split works or what a bond is.

This dynamic — indie voice discussing compound interest — would cause my intellectual superiors to mock me. But it also garnered Green nonstop media attention and TV appearances. Eventually, real publishers started reaching out to see if Green was for sale.

Green publisher John Packel and I took many meetings and created many professional looking business plans, but the truth is, we didn’t know what we were doing. And putting this thing out as a two-man shop was extremely difficult. We were growing like crazy, and the bigger we got, the more money we lost. We clearly needed a real partner, both for the capital, but as much for the expertise and professionalism.

With all these companies sniffing around, I called Marisa and laid it out for her. I was then working full-time at Esquire. John had taken a full-time job at some sort of charitable catalog. And we were spending all our time and money keeping Green afloat. I asked Marisa if Avi Glazer’s new company would be interested in buying Green. She got back to me just a few days later and said Avi had checked it out and liked it and had seen me on TV a bunch of times and thought we’d be a good fit.

They sent over a term sheet right away and a check for $50,000, if I remember correctly. I cannot recall the full details and this contract seems lost to the sands of time. I know we wouldn’t have sold the entire company for that amount and we eventually sold it for quite a bit more (more on that later). But I know I wouldn’t have sold it for less than seven figures, so I have to believe that $50,000 was either like a deposit or earnest money as a way to tide us over till we finalized the deal. Something like that.

But I know it was real, because not only did we get the money, but we went through the then-horrible and difficult process of moving our domain name from our company to Zap.

As we started to finalize the details, Marisa and I talked a bunch about the great things we would accomplish as brother and sister editors. Then, another seemingly stable company contacted us. Again, I was used to this. Citigroup had been in touch. Time Inc had been in touch. The publishing arm of Fidelity Investments, which published Worth magazine, had been in touch. I was used to impressive, important-sounding companies kicking the tires, and nothing coming of it.

But this new company was different.

The author Dave Eggers saw this issue of Green in a Barnes and Noble and emailed us, “Good lord, give them designers a bonus and a six-pack of Old Milwaukee. The cover especially, the photo, the coverlines — it’s really great. Congratulations.”

Bank Rate, the company that compiles all the mortgage and credit card rates for newspapers and other stuff all over the world had gotten in touch. They were going public amid dot-com mania and they were actually a profitable publishing company. It was such a perfect fit. They had data and a totally defensible data collection operation, but didn’t really understand journalism enough to write compelling editorial content around it.

Green had all this buzz and a strong voice, but nothing to differentiate us in the event that some other publication just hired their own smart-ass editor and instantly became better than us. So it was such a perfect fit and John and I really liked the people at Bank Rate, including Cotter Cunningham, who was the executive tasked with building a viable publishing arm. (Cotter later went on to found RetailMeNot and had a successful IPO and exit.)

But we had already signed with Avi’s company, and he had given us money, and we had transferred the domain name, so he was really in control.

I called Avi and explained the situation. I remember sitting in my office at Esquire, and finally getting him on the phone—he was a young guy then and had the reputation as a playboy—and I laid it out. We have a deal with you, you’ve given us money, you’ve got our domain name and I will honor that deal. But the truth is, another offer’s come in and I think it would be a much better fit for Green and for me personally. Is there any way you can let us out of our commitment?

Avi was so cool about it. He said, look, I really enjoyed getting to know you and I think Green is unique and that you have a special voice. But I want what’s best for you. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing in the publishing world, and I don’t know how long I’ll be committed to it, so, if you’d rather go with this new company, give me my money back, we’ll tear up the deal and I’ll give you the domain back.

And that’s exactly what happened, days later. I remember we had this call where Avi and I both had to be on the line at the same time to tell the domain registrar, “Yes, we agree to this,” and they pressed some buttons and I had my baby back. I sold it to Bank Rate for about a million bucks, and John and me thought we were Malcolm Forbes and Jim Michaels.

So now, seeing the entire world talking soccer and World Cup and Ronaldo and Manchester United, I can see the frustration with a foreign owner, whose reign has disappointed fans. But I at least wanted it out there for the record that this was a guy who behaved very decently in the kind of quiet, private transaction that reveals someone’s character. Avi Glazer didn’t have to let us wriggle out of the deal. He could have enforced its terms or demanded some ransom. Instead, he treated us fairly and his decency turned out to be the right place for all of us. Avi shut down Zap soon after and Green did well for a couple years under the Bank Rate team that eventually bought it.

3 thoughts on “Avi Glazer Is Manchester’s Public Enemy No 1, but He Treated Me Fairly

  1. I love this story and concur – Avi treated us more than fairly.

    Zap offered us $1M. I remember discussing it with my grandfather, who was impressed and advised me to go into a stock deal with eyes wide open (he’d been there; after retiring at 45 and then nearly going broke when the stock from his company’s acquirer tanked, he’d come up with his last big idea: https://www.naeir.org/about/history).

    “John and me thought we were Malcolm Forbes and Jim Michaels”. So true! Our lawyer said, “This isn’t as much money as you think. You should get a Corolla, not a Cadillac.” Good times.

    Until recently, you could still find Green Magazine’s “Money Shot” celebrity interviews on Bankrate.com. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, “Sixx Degrees of Separation” (with Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx) still exists: https://web.archive.org/web/20001215224500/http://www.greenmagazine.com/2000/06/000615a.asp

    1. Great memories and thank you for sharing, John. And I enjoyed reading the About page for Naeir. Incredible volume of good being done there. Good ol’ Norbert and Laverne — rock-solid names for visionary philanthropists. Good on Gary for building on that foundation.

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