The sale of Premier League football club Chelsea, triggered when the British government sanctioned its Russian owner for its Kremlin ties, was already the oddest club sale in recent sporting history. Things suddenly got at their most confusing on Friday, after one of Britain’s richest men entered the fray with a bold bid that upended a process that appeared to be nearing its end.
The offer from Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire CEO of chemicals giant Ineos, was valued at $5.3 billion and would represent the highest price ever paid for a sports team. His arrival disrupted a week-long sales process; raise doubts about the prospect of a quick and clean transfer of ownership; and brought new drama to the future of one of the richest and most successful football clubs in the world.
Indeed, at the end of the day it was not clear whether Ratcliffe’s offer would succeed or even be welcomed.
According to multiple reports released Friday, citing anonymous sources, another bid led by a Los Angeles Dodgers shareholder, Todd Boehly, had been given exclusive rights to negotiate the team’s purchase. The New York Times could not confirm this status, although at least one other ownership group confirmed it had been told it was out of the running.
Ratcliffe, meanwhile, had suddenly emerged from the shadows. He phrased his offer in the 11th Hour as a “British bid for a British club” – a clear attempt to set him apart from three competing US citizens in the eyes of the British government, which has to approve any sale due to sanctions.
The timing of Ratcliffe’s proposal and the very public nature of his announcement – through a public statement released weeks after the offer period closed – may indicate difficulties with Raine Group, the New York-based consulting firm handling them. To gain a foothold the sale was commissioned by Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
Ratcliffe’s late intervention also raises the possibility of an ugly resolution to a trial that has been shrouded in confusion and chaos from the start, all centered around the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Abramovich’s ties to Russia’s President Vladimir V Putin.
Chelsea, the reigning European champions, were in a tailspin even before the British government considered Abramovich a close ally to Putin and imposed crippling restrictions on his wealth as part of a broader range of sanctions announced against a group of Russian oligarchs. Abramovich, who has spent more than $2 billion on Chelsea since buying the team in 2003, announced in March he would be selling the team while its ties with Russia are under scrutiny. A sale became inevitable when Abramovich’s assets were frozen by the British government.
Ratcliffe’s offer includes a commitment to contribute more than $3 billion to a charitable foundation that Abramovich would set up to accept proceeds from the sale. (Abramovich is barred from receiving money from the sale under current sanctions.) But Ratcliffe has also pledged to spend more than $2 billion to ensure the team retains its place in global football’s elite.
“We are making this investment as fans of the beautiful game – not to make a profit,” Ratcliffe said in a statement issued by Ineos. “We do that with our core businesses. The club is rooted in its community and its fans. And that is why it is our intention to invest in Chelsea.”
Under Abramovich, Chelsea have grown into one of the biggest and most successful teams in global football. That came at a huge cost, however, as the team has been losing around $1 million a week since Abramovich, then an unknown Russian businessman, took control of the club in 2003.
Ratcliffe, whose wealth could even surpass Abramovich’s, has indicated he would be willing to do the same. However, it remained unclear on Friday whether his bid would even get a hearing or whether another bid might get the approval of Abramovich, the UK government and the Premier League first.
The government must grant a license as a condition of any sale, similar to the one that has allowed Chelsea to proceed despite the freeze order on Abramovich’s other assets and businesses. The Premier League must also approve any new owners.
As part of his offer, Ratcliffe said he would pay £2.5 billion, or $3.1 billion, to a charitable foundation “to support victims of war”. This language was similar to Abramovich’s when he announced he was putting Chelsea up for sale, but it’s unclear how such a charity would work or how British officials would ensure none of the proceeds went to Abramovich or companies he controlled.
Ratcliffe also pledged to invest a further $2.1 billion in Chelsea over the next 10 years, a figure that would also include the redevelopment of the club’s aging Stamford Bridge stadium, another of Abramovich’s terms for any new owner.
Chelsea wouldn’t be the first foray into sporting investment, or even football, for Ratcliffe, a self-proclaimed fan of Chelsea’s Premier League rivals Manchester United since school. He already owns French professional football club OGC Nice, based near his home in Monaco, and FC Lausanne-Sport, a team in Switzerland. But buying Chelsea would be on a whole different scale for a man known for keeping a low profile.
“We believe London should have a club that reflects the size of the city,” Ratcliffe said. “One that is equated with Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. We intend Chelsea to become that club.”
His bold and apparently unsolicited bid will surely have angered the group of American-backed bidders who have spent weeks participating in an increasingly complicated auction devised by Raine’s co-founder Joe Ravitch. Deadlines for final bids have been extended several times, and late this week the three investment groups remaining in the process were told to increase their bids by an additional $600 million.
Circumstances surrounding the sale were already among the strangest in professional sports, a beauty pageant that brought together some of the world’s richest people, but also prominent athletes and unknown figures who appeared determined to use the sale to raise their own profile.
Boehly’s bid, which sought to secure its own British connections by joining forces with a number of well-connected Brits including George Osborne, a former British finance minister, has been working diligently to secure Chelsea since Abramovich announced he was signing up will separate from the club. Boehly and his partners navigated the difficult terrain – avoiding the mistakes that proved costly to other applicants – to emerge as front runners this week.
Boehly’s group had been challenged by a sprawling syndicate funded by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, members of the ownership group that controls the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, which recently added Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and tennis star Serena Williams to its ranks had recorded.
The third finalist was a group led by Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Pagliuca’s consortium included Larry Tenenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, the hockey Toronto Maple Leafs and Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. But it confirmed on Friday that it had been told its offer was no longer being considered.
A sale can’t come soon enough for Chelsea’s players, staff and fans. Since the sanctions against Abramovich were announced, the club has been operating under the most unusual financial constraints. The special government license that allows the team to operate has left the club with up to 10,000 unsold tickets for its home games, forcing the team to limit its travel budget and close the team’s online and brick-and-mortar stores.
“It would be ideal” to clarify the situation as soon as possible, admitted Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel after a win on Sunday. “But you can’t grow grass to make it grow faster.”