The endgame is approaching in the auction for Chelsea FC

English football’s biggest soap opera – the bidding war to own Chelsea FC – appears to be entering its final stages.

The Raine Group, the New York merchant bank slated 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 set to name its preferred bidder from this week. He will choose one of three groups backed by American investors, each of which has presented a multibillion-dollar bid.

By picking a winner, the Chelsea board, Abramovich and Raine will be one step closer to ending one of the weirdest and richest takeovers in modern sports history: a beauty contest that has united European football and American money; Legends of Chelsea and foreign installers; all part of a galaxy of individuals and groups with designs on a team that Abramovich’s billions turned into a sporting powerhouse during his nearly two-decade reign.

The sale, whenever a deal is finally made, is expected to yield the highest amount ever paid for a sports team, with estimates suggesting a price tag of around $3 billion. Abramovich is currently not eligible to receive profits.

An early favorite in the race, a group led by Todd Boehly, a billionaire investor and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, remains well positioned to win. But Boehly and his partners are being challenged by a sprawling consortium funded by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, members of the ownership group that controls the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, who this week added Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and star tennis player Serena Williams. in their ranks.

The third finalist is led by Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and includes Larry Tenenbaum, president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.

Representatives of the three consortia, along with a group of Raine bankers led by one of the company’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 contenders, some to be taken seriously and some certainly not. A bid from the Ricketts family who own the Chicago Cubs, for example, had deep pockets but was torpedoed after anti-Muslim emails sent by family patriarch Joe Ricketts – first reported in 2019 – resurfaced.

MMA champion Conor McGregor offered £1.5 billion (about $1.8 billion) to Chelsea on Twitter, then later deleted the post and, presumably, the offer. A mysterious Turkish businessman who claimed to have discussed a price with Abramovich’s lawyers and boasted that ‘we will soon be flying the Turkish flag in London’ later missed the bid deadline . He claimed that his lawyers had sent their offer to the wrong email address.

For the players, staff and fans of Chelsea, a decision cannot come soon enough. The club has been working under very unusual financial constraints since the announcement of sanctions against Abramovich, an ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. A special government license that allows the team to operate has left the club with up to 10,000 unsold tickets for its home games and forced the team to limit travel budgets and close the team store .

Uncertainty about the future has also affected the team on the pitch. Chelsea expect to lose two key defenders, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, when their contracts expire at the end of the season. No discussions with potential replacements can take place until a new owner replaces Abramovich.

“It would be ideal” for the situation to be resolved as soon as possible, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel admitted on Sunday after a victory over West Ham. “But you can’t pull the grass, so it grows faster.”

The unique nature of the sale, however, means that whichever group is granted preferred bidder status, they will only have cleared the first hurdle. The British government must approve the sale for it to go ahead, and it will insist on strict rules to ensure that none of the profits go to Abramovich. He said all the money owed to him would be donated to a new charitable foundation “for all the victims of the war in Ukraine”, but the association’s projects remain vague.

Potential new owners would then need to be vetted and approved by the Premier League. This could raise a thorny complication for Harris and Blitzer: they currently own Chelsea’s London rivals Crystal Palace and would therefore have to divest their stakes before taking control of another Premier League side.

Pagliuca, meanwhile, has an investment in Italy’s Atalanta, a team that has played alongside Chelsea in the Champions League in recent years.

As deadlines for final bids were extended once and then again, the process was widely leaked to the media, leading some bidders to privately express their frustration and claim unequal treatment. Raine did not comment on the process beyond an interview with the Financial Times in which Ravitch made a startling and unsubstantiated claim about Chelsea’s worth.

“I guess Chelsea and all the top clubs in the Premier League will probably be worth over $10 billion in five years,” he said, in what was seen as an attempt to raise the asking price even further. “So I think anyone who 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 – hasn’t come cheap; his spending in pursuit of those honors cost him nearly $2 billion of his personal fortune.

It’s unclear how the new owners will be able to maintain that record of success without compounding those losses, which under Abramovich’s leadership amounted to more than $1 million a week. Under the terms of the sale, any new owners will also have to undertake to redevelop the team’s stadium, Stamford Bridge. Abramovich once pledged to fund the project, to the tune of $1.3 billion, before shelved the plan in 2018 amid a visa dispute that kept him out of the Great Britain. Britain for years.

The team will also have to rebuild its relationships with some of its key partners. Three, a telecommunications company, suspended its sponsorship with Chelsea once Abramovich’s ban was announced and, fearing being drawn into the sanctions dispute, demanded that his logo be removed from the team’s shirts. Several weeks later – to the growing frustration of Three’s executives – the logo remains, with the club unwilling to use stickers to cover it or order new shirts without it.

Fans have played a central role in the efforts of potential buyers of the club, with several rounds of talks now taking place between investor groups and influential supporter organizations, and each bidding group adding local representatives in a bid to highlight their good faith at Chelsea. . Boehly is working with Danny Finkelstein, a former adviser to the ruling Conservative Party. The Harris-Blitzer consortium was formed by former British Airways chairman Martin Broughton and includes former Olympic Games official Sebastian Coe. Pagliuca won the support of former Chelsea captain John Terry.

But the sensitivity of the process has also highlighted how costly even a single misstep can be.

Former player Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, revealed this week in a personal statement that he had met several groups during the bidding process, but found one after another a lack. He described the ownership efforts of Hamilton and Williams, who claimed to support other teams, as ‘disrespectful’ to Chelsea; credited Ricketts’ bid since withdrawn for his plans to support the Chelsea foundation; and admitted that a plan by a group to give fans some sort of cryptocurrency technology “went over my head.”

Canoville has now publicly backed the Boehly-led bid.

Laura J. Boyer