(Reuters) - Elon Musk, the world's richest person, briefly lifted the gloom over Manchester United's shares and fans on Wednesday by tweeting he was buying the English soccer club - only to say a little later it was all part of "a long-running joke".
One of the world's most successful soccer clubs, the "Red Devils" are languishing at the bottom of England's Premier League and, having seen eight coaches come and go in less than 10 years, some fans and investors are wondering whether it's time for the club's owners, the American Glazer family, to sell.
Enter the billionaire CEO of Tesla.
"To be clear, I support the left half of the Republican Party and the right half of the Democratic Party! Also, I'm buying Manchester United ur (sic) welcome - Elon Musk," the 51-year-old tweeted to his 103 million followers.
Some of the club's fans had previously urged Musk on Twitter to consider buying the club, complaining at what they see as under-investment by the Glazers. United won the last of their record 20 English league titles back in 2013.
Within six hours, Musk's tweet had attracted more than 500,000 'likes' on the club's main Twitter account - though some users didn't take it too seriously, comparing the post with Musk's troubled run at buying Twitter.
But then came the clarification.
"No, this is a long-running joke on Twitter. I'm not buying any sports teams," Musk posted, when asked if he was serious.
"Although, if it were any team, it would be Man U," he added. "They were my fav (sic) team as a kid."
The Florida-based Glazers, Musk and his lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Manchester United declined to comment.
United fans were not impressed.
"It's just a tweet from somebody who not always thinking twice before write something (sic)," The Manchester United Fanatics Club Hungary said.
The Kolkata fans club added: "It again reinstated the fact that Elon and his tweets are just gimmicks. Although it would have been great if he really invested 1/10th of what he paid for Twitter to own this legendary club ... the entire fan base is sick and tired of the Glazers."
Even so, Musk's musings ignited trading in the company's U.S. listed shares ahead of the New York market open. They briefly jumped as much as 17%, before settling around $13.20, about 3% above Tuesday's closing price.
Ipek Ozkardeskaya, senior analyst at Swissquote Bank, didn't think Musk and United would be a perfect match.
"Elon Musk, and his expertise doesn’t necessarily add value to Manchester U, unless he aims to replace players by robots," she said.
The tweets are far from the first to land Musk in controversy.
The entrepreneur is currently seeking to exit a $44 billion agreement to buy Twitter only four months after announcing on the platform he would buy the social media company, which has taken him to court.
Musk has a history of being unconventional and irreverent, making it hard sometimes to tell when he is joking.
"Next I'm buying Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in," he tweeted on April 27, two days after Twitter's board accepted his unsolicited offer to buy the company.
Musk's tweets about potential acquisitions have also landed him in hot water with U.S. regulators in the past.
In 2018, he tweeted there was "funding secured" for a $72 billion deal to take Tesla private, but did not make an offer. Musk and Tesla each paid $20 million civil fines - and Musk stepped down as Tesla's chairman - to resolve U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) claims he defrauded investors.
The SEC declined to comment on Musk's latest tweets.
Musk's ambitions range from colonising Mars to creating a new sustainable energy economy, and in the process he has built the most valuable car company in the world in Tesla, rocket company SpaceX, and a slew of smaller firms. One is a tunnel maker called the Boring Company.
Clamour from fans for a change of ownership at United, the three-time winners of the European Cup, the most prestigious club competition in the global game, has been intensifying.
British newspaper The Daily Mirror reported last year the Glazers, who acquired the club in 2005 for 790 million pounds ($957 million), were prepared to sell, but only if offered over 4 billion pounds.
The Glazers have not given any indication of an interest in selling, however.
British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, from the Manchester area and a long-standing fan, has been touted as a potential buyer. His spokesperson at chemical firm INEOS, where he is chairman, declined to comment.
There were also unconfirmed reports of Saudi interest in United before the country's PIF investment fund purchased another Premier League club, Newcastle United.
The Glazers rarely make public statements regarding their ownership of the club, but after fierce criticism for involvement in an aborted European Super League plan, Joel Glazer wrote an open letter to the club's fans in May 2021.
"I want to reassure you that my family and I care deeply about Manchester United and feel a profound sense of responsibility to protect and enhance its strength for the long-term, while respecting its values and traditions," he said.
Forbes this year rated United, with its huge global fanbase, the third most valuable soccer club in the world, worth $4.6 billion, behind only Spain's Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But the club's shares have slid a quarter in the past 12 months, valuing it at just over $2 billion.
(This story corrects to show Ipek Ozkardeskaya in para 16 is a woman)
(Reporting by Juby Babu in Bengaluru and Hyunjoo Jin in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Aadi Nair and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan in Bengaluru, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Simon Evans in Manchester, Danilo Masoni in Milan and Joice Alves in London; Writing by Peter Henderson, Michael Perry and Sayantani Ghosh; Editing by Josephine Mason and Mark Potter)