On Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, the Green Bay Packers lost their chance at the Super Bowl. Playing before a sellout crowd at Candlestick Park against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers gave up a playoff record 579 total yards, succumbing to a team that went on to claim the NFC Championship but eventually lost the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens at an eventful game in New Orleans.
Three months later and an ocean away, another "football" team, British soccer club Manchester United (NYSE:MANU), had a different story to tell. On Monday, April 22, 2013, Man Utd claimed their 20th league title, beating Aston Villa 3-0 to win the English Premier League Championship .
Man Utd now enters the hunt for a place in next season's European Champions League, while the Packers must go back to the drawing board, and start again at 0-0 in the race for Super Bowl XLVIII. That fact alone tells you why Man Utd is probably a better "football" team than the Packers.
But here's the real revelation: Manchester United is also a better investment than the Packers.
Football fans vs. profits fanatics
That's right. Manchester United and the Green Bay Packers aren't just "football teams" that you can cheer for. They're also "companies" that you can invest in. But they're very different kinds of companies.
You may recall how, Green Bay announced in December of 2011 that it was opening up its team to new buyers, offering to sell up to 880,000 Packers shares to the public for $250 apiece. Well, less than a year later, Man Utd decided to open itself up to public ownership as well, holding an initial public offering of its stock at an offer price of $14 a share.
Eight months later, those Manchester United shares sell for nearly $18 apiece -- a 28% gain. Not bad ... but get a load of how Packers shares have performed. Since their third public offering back in 1950, shares of the Packers have increased in price 10,000 times, from a split-adjusted price of $0.025 per share, to the 2011 asking price of $250. That looks like a pretty hefty profit. It looks like the Packers are outperforming Man Utd.
But looks can be deceiving.
The problem with Packers, according to its prospectus, is that despite the rise in value of the team, and of its stock, investors in Green Bay "should not purchase [GB] stock with the purpose of making a profit." Why not? Because each share of the Green Bay Packers comes burdened with "transfer restrictions and redemption rights."
The effect of these rights is to prevent anyone who bought a Green Bay share back in 1950 from ever realizing a dime of profit on the 10,000% appreciation of that share's value today. Any time a Green Bay shareholder tries to sell a share today, "the Corporation has a right of first refusal to repurchase [GB] Stock at a price of $0.025 per share."
In other words, if you own a share of Green Bay, and want to sell it for $250, you can't. The company will swoop in and force you to sell said share for two-and-a-half cents instead -- turning a potential 10,000-fold profit into a 99.99% loss. Which kind of defeats the purpose of selling the shares.
Why Manchester United is 10,000 times better than Green Bay
Now compare this with the situation Manchester United shareholders enjoy. Green Bay shareholders own a piece of a technically for-profit corporation that actually earns no profit. Man Utd, on the other hand, is unabashedly profit-seeking -- and profitable. Green Bay shareholders can't make a profit for themselves by selling their shares -- but Man Utd shareholders most assuredly can.
Last year, Man Utd reported GAAP earnings of $37 million and generated $93 million in free cash flow. Its stock sells for about 51 times the earnings it's expected to make this year.
Put in perspective, that's more expensive than a share of sportswear maker Under Armour (NYSE:UAA), and twice the P/E of Nike (NYSE:NKE). But that's OK. Because according to analyst estimates, Man Utd is likely to grow its profits at the astounding speed of 45% per year over the next four years -- twice as fast as Under Armour, and four times the speed of Nike. If all goes as planned, today's Man Utd share price of $17 and change will be only 26 times the earnings the club makes next year, and only 22 times 2015 earnings.
When it comes to sports, the Green Bay Packers and Manchester United are both storied franchises, and deserving of their fans' loyalty.
But in contrast to the Green Bay Packers, Manchester United is more than just a great football team. It's also a darned good-looking investment. Man Utd sells for a steep P/E, but a much lower price-to-free cash flow ratio. It's growing fast enough to make its P/E ratio look reasonable, and its P/FCF ratio, cheap.
To my mind, there's simply no room for doubt: When it comes to their potential for profit, this makes Manchester United a 10,000-times better investment than the Green Bay Packers.
Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Nike and Under Armour. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.