English soccer’s biggest soap opera – The bidding war to own Chelsea FC – appears to be entering its endgame.
The Raine Group, a New York merchant banker, sold to the Premier League soccer club of Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch whose assets have been frozen by the British government, is poised to name its preferred bidder as soon as this week. It will choose one of three groups backed by American investors, each of which has put forward a multibillion-dollar offer.
In picking a winner, the Chelsea board, Abramovich and Raine will bring inches closer to one of the strangest, and richest, takeovers in modern sports history: a beauty pageant that brought together European soccer and American money; Chelsea legends and foreign poseurs; All part of a galaxy of individuals and groups with designs on a team that Abramovich’s billions have turned into a sporting powerhouse during his nearly two-decade reign.
The sale, when a deal is finally closed, should yield the highest amount ever paid for a sports team, with estimates suggesting a price tag of about $ 3 billion. Abramovich is currently not allowed to receive any of the proceeds.
One of the early front-runners in the race, led by a group led by Todd Boehly, a billionaire investor and a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is currently well-established. But Boehly and his partners are being challenged by a sprawling consortium bankrolled by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, members of a ownership group that controls the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, which this week added Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and tennis star Serena Williams to their ranks.
The third finalist is led by Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and Larry Tenenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC.
Representatives of all three consortiums, as well as a group of bankers from Raine led by one of the firm’s founders, Joe Ravitch, were summoned to London this week, where each group was to make a final pitch.
The surviving bidders navigated a path now littered with failed suitors, some taken seriously and others definitely not. A bid by the Ricketts family that owns the Chicago Cubs, for example, had deep pockets but was torpedoed after anti-Muslim emails were sent by the family patriarch Joe Ricketts – first reported in 2019 – resurfaced.
The MMA champion Conor McGregor offered £ 1.5 billion (about $ 1.8 billion) for Chelsea on Twitter, then later deleted the post and, presumably, the offer. A mysterious Turkish businessman who has spoken to Abramovich’s lawyers about a price, and who boasted that “we will fly to the Turkish flag in London soon,” later missed the deadline for bids. He claimed his lawyer had sent his offer to the wrong email address.
For Chelsea’s players, staff and fans, a decision cannot come soon enough. The club has been working under extremely unusual financial constraints since the sanctions against Abramovich, an ally of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, were announced. A special government license that allows the team to operate has left the club holding as many as 10,000 unsold tickets for its home games, and has forced the team to limit its travel budgets and close to the team store.
The uncertainty over the future has affected the team on the field, too. Chelsea expects to lose two key defenders, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, when their contracts expire at the end of the season. Any negotiations with potential replacements can’t take place until a new owner replaces Abramovich.
“It would have been ideal” to have the situation resolved as soon as possible, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel admitted Sunday after a victory over West Ham. “But you can’t pull grass so it grows faster.”
The unique nature of the sale, though, means that the whichever group has the preferred bidder status will only be cleared of the first hurdle. The British government must bless the sale in order for it to go through, and it will insist on strict rules that no one proceeds to go to Abramovich. He said any money he had would have been donated to the new charitable foundation “for all victims of war in Ukraine,” but plans for the charity remain vague.
The prospective new owners will then have to be vetted and approved by the Premier League. That could raise a thorny complication for Harris and Blitzer: They currently own Chelsea’s London rival, Crystal Palace, and will have to divest their stakes before taking control of another Premier League team.
Pagliuca, meanwhile, has an investment in Italy’s Atalanta, a team that has appeared alongside Chelsea in the Champions League in recent years.
As final offers for deadlines were extended once, and then again, the process became subject to numerous leaks in the news media, leading some bidders to privately express frustration and make claims of unequal treatment. Raine has not commented on the process beyond an interview with The Financial Times in which Ravitch made a startling, and unsupported, claim about Chelsea’s value.
“My guess is that Chelsea and all the top Premier League clubs will probably be worth $ 10 billion in five years,” he said, noting what was seen as a bid to drive the sales price even higher. “So I think whoever buys Chelsea today at the prices we’re talking about is getting it for a steal.”
Chelsea’s record of success under Abramovich – five Premier League titles and two Champions League crowns – has not come cheaply; His outlay in pursuit of those honors has cost him about $ 2 billion from his personal fortune.
It is unclear how the new owners will be able to maintain that record without success deepening those losses, during which Abramovich’s stewardship amounted to more than $ 1 million a week. Under the terms of the sale, any new owner will also have to commit to redeveloping the team’s stadium, Stamford Bridge. Abramovich once pledged to finance the project, to the tune of $ 1.3 billion, before shelving the plan in 2018 amid a visa dispute that kept him out of Britain for years.
The team will also need to rebuild its relationships with some of its key partners. Three, a telecoms company, suspended its sponsorship with Chelsea once banned against Abramovich, and, fearing that it might be drawn into the sanctions dispute, asked that its logo be removed from the team’s jerseys. Several weeks later – to the growing frustration of three executives – the logo remains, with the club unwilling to use stickers to cover it up or order new shirts without it.
Fans have been central to the efforts of would-be buyers of the club, with several rounds of discussions now being held between investor groups and influential supporter organizations, and each bidding group has added an effort to stress local Chelsea bona fides. General Chat Chat Lounge Boehly is working with Danny Finkelstein, a former adviser to the ruling Conservative Party. The Harris-Blitzer consortium was assembled by former British Airways chairman Martin Broughton, and includes former Olympics official Sebastian Coe. Pagliuca has won the support of former Chelsea captain John Terry.
But the sensitivity of the process has also highlighted how even a single misstep can prove costly.
The former player Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, revealed this week In a statement of his own That he had met with multiple groups during the bidding process but had found one wanting after another. He described the ownership efforts of Hamilton and Williams, who have accepted other support teams, such as “disrespectful” to Chelsea; Credits the since-withdrawn Ricketts bid for its plans to support the Chelsea foundation; And admitted that a plan by a group to offer fans some sort of cryptocurrency technology “went over my head.”
Canoville is now publicly backed by the Boehly-led bid.