Sports

Why Very Rich People Want to Buy Chelsea FC So Badly

This opportunity is anything but typical.

The crowd in blue with a huge Chelsea flag and a banner displaying the team's slogan, "The Pride of London."
Chelsea supporters ahead of the English FA Cup semifinal between Chelsea and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium in northwest London on Sunday. Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images

It is not special, on its own, that a lot of people with a lot of money want to buy one of the most prominent clubs in the most popular league in the most popular sport in the world. It is not even that notable that many of those people seem to want it, as much as anything, for its functions as a status symbol. Much like the NFL, the English Premier League has a deep bench of rich guys who have found European soccer to be a tremendous image-laundering program.

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But the ongoing sale of Chelsea F.C. stands a bit apart from everything else in its category. Part of it is the circumstance of the transaction. The club’s future former owner is Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch with tight Vladimir Putin ties. That was cool while Russia was not in the midst of a hostile invasion of an ally of Western governments, but it stopped being cool when the first tanks crossed into Ukraine and the United Kingdom put sanctions on Putin-aligned tycoons like Abramovich. (He avoided them the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014, though there was some high-level talk at the time about how the government would treat him.) This time, when the U.K. froze whatever Abramovich assets it could, it put Chelsea into a state of suspended animation, where the club could keep operating but had to severely curtail its money-making operations. This was not a lot of fun for Abramovich, who threw the team up for sale and said he would give proceeds to war victims. He also said he would forgive a roughly 1.5 billion pound debt his club owed him. Being rich and owning a soccer team is great, but not being able to generate profit from that team, or run it like a team, is less great.

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The other reason the sale is such a mega-event is Chelsea’s stature as a club. Forbes most recently valued it at $3.2 billion, seventh-highest of any club. Abramovich reportedly wants at least $4 billion or so for it—kind of curious why he’d care, if he’s just donating it all!—and it appears that he got at least one bid in that neighborhood. He may have received bids for even more, because the asset manager that made that bid is not among the three reported finalists out of 20-some initial bidders. When ink hits paper, there is a good chance Chelsea will get the biggest price of any sports team ever sold, ahead of the $3.5 billion that the Brooklyn Nets fetched in 2019. An impending Denver Broncos sale will be for even more, but still: It’s a lot of cheddar. Not even Chelsea’s intractable and undoubtedly expensive stadium problem will keep the checkbooks away.

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For the potential buyers, Chelsea is a thrilling opportunity for a few reasons, I surmise. Some of them are standard: Owning a soccer team is fun. You will probably make a lot of money, and your asset will appreciate. (Abramovich paid a pittance of $233 million when he bought Chelsea in 2003, though his legal situation has complicated his efforts to reap a capital gain.) But in this case, at a moment when European soccer fans are generally not interested in much funny business from the billionaires who own their favorite clubs, there is another opportunity at hand: to be the hero who saves a massive club from the indignity of being stuck in a U.K. sanctions mess—and I guess, for some, from the Russian oligarch class, though Abramovich has always been pretty good in the eyes of many Chelsea fans, by the standards of owner-fan relations. All of this helps explain why so many people seem ready to pay so much for this club. You can get richer, have fun, and be beloved for it. It is not easy to get all three.

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The three remaining candidates seem to mostly be in the “dudes who love owning sports teams and have cash burning holes in their pockets” class, with some additional financial muscle added to their bidding groups. A headliner of one group is Todd Boehly, who holds big stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers, and Sparks. He has private equity money and money from George Osborne, a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Another candidate in the race is a group featuring Steve Pagliuca, who co-owns the Boston Celtics, and Larry Tanenbaum, who chairs the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors. No matter how many teams you own, you could always own one more. The other finalist has Sir Martin Broughton as its generic rich guy to go along with Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils, and the EPL’s Crystal Palace F.C. (They would have to ditch Palace to get involved with Chelsea, which seems to have already made things awkward at Palace. Relatedly, the pair are minority owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers who might now want to own the Broncos.) This group has also sportified itself a bit more by adding Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams as investors, likely hoping to be seen as a group of beloved sporting icons rather than standard capitalist acquirers.

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After all, it is important to be beloved. One bidder that wasn’t: the Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs and sought to add Chelsea to its portfolio. The Rickettses’ problem was not that they let one of the best young teams in baseball die on the vine, but that family patriarch Joe Ricketts is apparently deeply Islamophobic. Fan protests against the family’s involvement prompted the Rickettses to make a series of promises about their stewardship of the club, like an upgrade to its Stamford Bridge stadium and that it would never join a European super league. The family later backed out, citing “the unusual dynamics around the sales process.” That the Rickettses managed to become the villains of this story, given who they tried to buy the club from at this geopolitical moment, is a captivating achievement on the part of the family.

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For non-Ricketts bidders, though, there’s a chance to be an oddly sympathetic figure, and to “save” the team on the pitch much like Abramovich did in the 2000s. Chelsea had made a habit of finishing out of the Premier League’s top four before Abramovich bought the team, spent billions beefing it up, and guided it to five EPL titles and various European trophies, including a couple of Champions League titles. The Blues’ payroll went to the top of the sport, and Abramovich—who, by the way, was a Jewish owner of a club that at least has large swaths of antisemitic fans—became such a popular figure that some supporters lovingly chanted his name even once he was in the crosshairs of the British government, post–Ukraine invasion.

Buy Chelsea, buy good players who win trophies for you, and buy a lot of public goodwill while having the time of your life. It sounds like a great gig. If whoever buys the team from Abramovich does not keep up the winning, they will suffer the ultimate indignity for someone who owns a club of this magnitude: getting yelled at a bit and either ignoring it or, if it gets truly unbearable, selling out for what is likely to be a significant profit.

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