English soccer’s biggest soap opera – the bidding war to own Chelsea FC – appears to be entering its endgame.
The Raine Group, the New York merchant bank appointed to sell the Premier League soccer club on behalf 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 forth a multibillion-dollar offer.
In picking a winner, the Chelsea board, Abramovich and Raine will inch closer to bringing an end 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, whenever a deal is finally closed, should yield the highest amount ever paid for a sports team, with estimates suggesting a price tag of about US$3-billion. Abramovich is currently not allowed to receive any of the proceeds.
One of the early front-runners in the race, a group led by Todd Boehly, a billionaire investor and a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, remains well placed to prevail. But Boehly and his partners are being challenged by a sprawling consortium bankrolled by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, members of the ownership group that controls the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, who 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 includes Larry Tenenbaum, the 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 to be 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 sent by the family patriarch Joe Ricketts – first reported in 2019 – resurfaced.
MMA champion Conor McGregor offered £1.5-billion for Chelsea on Twitter, then later deleted the post and, presumably, the offer. A mysterious Turkish businessman who claimed to have spoken with Abramovich’s lawyers about a price, and who boasted that “we will fly the Turkish flag in London soon,” later missed the deadline for bids. He claimed his lawyers had sent his offer to the wrong e-mail address.
For Chelsea’s players, staff and fans, a decision cannot come soon enough. The club has been working under highly unusual financial constraints since the sanctions against Abramovich, an ally of Russian President Vladimir 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 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 talks with potential replacements cannot take place until a new owner replaces Abramovich.
“It would be ideal” to have the situation resolved as soon as possible, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said Sunday after a victory over West Ham. “But you cannot pull grass so it grows faster.”
The unique nature of the sale, though, means that whichever group is granted preferred bidder status will have only cleared the first hurdle. The British government must bless the sale in order for it to go through, and it will insist on strict rules to ensure that none of the proceeds go to Abramovich. He has said that any money he is due would be donated to new charitable foundation “for all victims of the war in Ukraine,” but plans for the charity remain vague.
The prospective new owners then would have to be vetted and approved by the Premier League. That could raise a thorny complication for Harris and Blitzer: They own Chelsea’s London rival, Crystal Palace, and would therefore 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 deadlines for final offers 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 of the top Premier League clubs will probably be worth in excess of $10 billion in five years,” he said, in 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 honours has cost him nearly US$2-billion from his personal fortune.
It is unclear how the new owners will be able to maintain that record of success without deepening those losses, which during Abramovich’s stewardship amounted to more than US$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 that project, to the tune of US$1.3-billion, before shelving the plan in 2018 amid a visa dispute that has 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 the ban against Abramovich was announced, 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 in the efforts of would-be buyers of the club, with several rounds of discussions now having taken place between investor groups and influential supporter organizations, and each bidding group has added local representatives in an effort to stress their Chelsea bona fides. 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.
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 after another wanting. He described the ownership efforts of Hamilton and Williams, who have claimed to support other teams, as “disrespectful” to Chelsea; credited the since-withdrawn Ricketts bid for its plans to support the Chelsea foundation; and admitted that a plan by one group to offer fans some sort of cryptocurrency technology “went over my head.”
Canoville has now publicly backed the Boehly-led bid.