Shortly after the Toronto Raptors won their championship in 2019, team president Masai Ujiri delivered a vision statement for the club’s future.
His team could be bigger than Canada, bigger even than the National Basketball Association. How big is that, exactly?
“We’re the new Reds,” Mr. Ujiri said. “We’re going to capture the whole world.”
By Reds, Mr. Ujiri was referring to the nickname of Liverpool Football Club. He’d just laid out the universal pecking order of the sports business – there are the dozen or so major European soccer clubs, and then there’s everybody else. Nothing in North America compares.
Building the Raptors into a brand of that stature is a continuing project. So Mr. Ujiri’s boss, Larry Tanenbaum, has apparently had a better idea. Rather than reinvent the wheel, why not buy a piece of the existing wheel?
On Wednesday, it was revealed that Mr. Tanenbaum, chairman and co-owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, is part of a bid to buy London-based Chelsea Football Club.
Mr. Tanenbaum’s involvement was announced via a statement from the bid’s principal, Stephen Pagliuca. Mr. Pagliuca is an American investment banker who co-owns the Boston Celtics.
His is one of four finalist bids for the English soccer giant. The sale is being made under duress after the club’s current owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, was volun-told by the British government to divest himself.
How did Mr. Tanenbaum come to join the group bidding on Chelsea? On Wednesday, his office was deferring comment to Mr. Pagliuca’s outfit. But there is at least one notable connection – former MLSE board member and ex-Rogers chief executive officer Guy Laurence is the current CEO of Chelsea.
In sports terms, a top-tier soccer club is bit like a Michelangelo – even if you could afford one, nobody’s selling.
This quality of sporting asset does not come up for auction unless the owner is in an administrative headlock. That rarity has brought everybody and his billionaire brother out to play.
The owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs wants in. An owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers has his paddle up. There are also some Brits, headlined by London Olympic 2012 supremo Sebastian Coe.
Interspersed in all four bids are a bunch of smaller fish – nameless superrich guys and cash-poor business celebrities.
Mr. Pagliuca’s consortium includes several investors who meet at the intersection of entertainment and media – former Disney CEO Bob Iger, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Tango & Cash producer Peter Guber. Mr. Tanenbaum appears to be first among the seconds. Mr. Pagliuca referred to him as “co-manager” of the offer.
All bids must be finalized this week. A decision will be made in May.
Another thing a soccer superclub is a bit like is a stately home. Every would-be aristocrat would like to have one, but not all of them are prepared for the upkeep.
North American teams pay off like government bonds. Even if you run them into the ground, their value continues to rise. League-wide equalization payments and national TV contracts ensure cashflow. Unlike soccer, there is no system where a crummy big-league team can be dumped into the minor leagues for poor performance.
Unless you own a hockey team in Arizona, it is essentially impossible to go broke owning a pro franchise on this side of the ocean.
Soccer teams are a different beast. The best of them – especially the best of them – can become financial sinkholes. Aside from a loose set of spending guidelines governing the buying and selling of players, there are no caps on costs.
Chelsea thrived in large part because there was no sensible limit on what Mr. Abramovich would funnel into the club. As part of his deal to leave, the Russian oil mogul is writing off $2.5-billion in loans he made to the team. All Mr. Abramovich wanted out of Chelsea was profile and trophies. More trophies meant more profile.
Chelsea made Mr. Abramovich arguably the most famous sports businessperson on the planet.
How many people outside Illinois can name the owner of the Cubs off the top of their heads? That’s part of what’s going on here.
(Whoever wins this race should remember, but won’t, that all that profile helped undo Mr. Abramovich in the end.)
From a purely business perspective, the example of Barcelona is instructive. That club is probably the top sporting brand in the world. In order to maintain that supremacy, it spent so much on transfers and salaries that it is now well over a billion dollars in debt.
No new money means fewer new players. Fewer new players means fewer opportunities to make money. That’s how you find yourself losing Lionel Messi for nothing. If it can happen to Barcelona, it can happen to anyone.
In their introductory statement, Mr. Pagliuca and Mr. Tanenbaum specifically mentioned improvements to Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge. That will need rebuilding or replacing. The club isn’t as good as it could be, meaning hundreds of millions more will need to be spent on players in the next few years. Then there’s all the outreach that will be required to persuade suspicious west Londoners that a couple of carpetbagging billionaires have been dyed-in-blue Chelsea fans their whole lives (or at least since February).
In North America, you can talk about financial realities and most fans will nod along. Try that with soccer supporters and they’ll be ringing your house with torches. Every year that Chelsea does not win is a bad year at Chelsea.
That’s the downside.
The upside is more poetic – a chance to graduate from regional sports operator to global powerbroker.
Mr. Tanenbaum is 77 years old and wealthy beyond comprehension. He’s hooked in to sport on this continent at every level. But outside Toronto, he’s not a name. He’s just another rich guy who likes hanging around with jocks.
Chelsea is the magic key that provides a global pass into a social circle as yet denied to him. In that milieu, “owner of Chelsea Football Club” works as well as “prime minister.”
This club is not merit based. It’s cash entry. But once you’re in, money becomes an abstraction. Even for those of us who couldn’t afford the parking fee on Mr. Tanenbaum’s private jet, it’s not hard to understand why he’d be willing to go all in for that chance.