(Bloomberg) -- Bidders for Manchester United Plc were on Wednesday preparing to launch improved offers for the football club ahead of a 9 p.m. deadline in London, people with knowledge of the matter said, as the battle for one of world sport’s biggest assets ramps up. 

A Qatari consortium, led by Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad J.J. Al Thani, is set to raise an initial debt-free offer from £4.5 billion ($5.5 billion), one of the people said. The Middle East bid group’s main rival is British billionaire and Manchester United fan Jim Ratcliffe, who’s also expected to improve on his first offer, which was less than £4.5 billion, the people said.

The two are competing to acquire the English Premier League club from the American Glazer family, which has appointed New York bank Raine Group to handle the sale. 

Shares of Manchester United were up 4.9% at 1:24 p.m. Wednesday in New York, on track to close at the highest level since February.

Deliberations are ongoing and no final decisions on any bid increases have been taken. While Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe are the only two parties to have publicly declared interest buying Manchester United, it’s still possible other suitors will enter the fray, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing confidential information. 

Ratcliffe, the founder of chemicals company Ineos Group, has already lined up financing from banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for his offer. Earlier this week, banks halted an €820 million loan deal for Ineos Enterprises, as markets assessed the emergency takeover of Credit Suisse Group AG by UBS Group AG. Ratcliffe’s team remain confident about raising the money for a takeover of Manchester United, one person said. 

There is growing concern in some quarters that the Glazers, who have owned Manchester United since 2005, will ultimately decide against an outright sale and instead strike a deal with investors that will allow them to remain in charge, according to the people. 

US hedge fund Elliott Investment Management is willing to provide financing on a deal for the club, including one that involves the Glazers. Alternative asset managers Ares Management LLC and Oaktree Capital Group are also open to offering funds to back new investment in Manchester United, the people said. 

Adam Sommerfeld, a sport investment specialist at Certus Capital, has estimated any offer for Manchester United would need to exceed £4 billion to be successful. That would make it one of the largest ever deals involving a sports franchise, surpassing the $4.65 billion paid last year by a group led by Walmart Inc. heir Rob Walton for the Denver Broncos NFL team. 

MUST, an influential Manchester United supporters’ group, has urged the Glazers to be realistic on price. “They know United needs capital investment, that’s one of the reasons they are selling,” said Chris Rumfitt at the group. “So they should make sure that the capital requirement is factored into the sale price.”

Representatives for Ares, Oaktree, Ratcliffe, Sheikh Jassim and Manchester United declined to comment, while a spokesperson for Raine couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

--With assistance from Irene García Pérez and Aaron Kirchfeld.

(Updates with share move in fourth paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.