A consortium led by the Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly was yesterday chosen as the preferred bidder for Chelsea, yet the most significant twist in the pursuit of the Premier League club came from a dramatic late bid from the British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
The Athletic understands that Boehly’s group, which includes his fellow Dodgers co-owner Mark Walters and the Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, has not yet entered into an exclusivity agreement and while in theory they have a week to complete a deal, the process has taken on completely new look.
Boehly’s consortium had been in competition with two other groups to buy Chelsea from Roman Abramovich, who put it up for sale shortly before he was sanctioned for his alleged links to Russian president Vladimir Putin following the invasion of Ukraine. It is understood that the Boehly consortium’s total bid was in excess of £4 billion. This includes a pledge to spend £1.5 billion to develop the club and Stamford Bridge, on top of meeting Raine’s valuation of around £2.5 billion.
But now another credible bid, which did not follow the lengthy process, has emerged.
Ratcliffe, the owner of Ineos, the petrochemicals giant, held discussions with Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck on Thursday before making his offer.
“We put an offer in (on Friday) morning,” Ratcliffe told The Times. “We are the only British bid. Our motives are simply to try and create a very fine club in London. We have no profit motive because we make our money in other ways.”
Here we explain what happened on another extraordinary day for Chelsea and what it means for the club’s future ownership.
Ratcliffe’s bid for Chelsea was late, but has it come too late?
Put it this way, if you verbally agree to sell your house to someone who contacted your estate agent, has had a look around a few times and met your asking price, are you ignoring someone who knocks on your door and says “I’ll pay more and I can do it tomorrow”?
Good on you if you are big enough to honour that initial agreement but not many do. Gazumping is annoying when it happens to you but it is not illegal.
The Chelsea sale process has been run by American bank Raine Group. Operating under unprecedented circumstances, it has successfully marketed the club, weeded out time-wasters and set up a three-horse race between syndicates comprised of mega-rich investors, most of whom have considerable experience of running sports teams. As fire-sales go, it has been calm and considered.
In fact, Raine clearly felt it had done its bit by Friday when it contacted the two unsuccessful bids — the group backed by Crystal Palace co-owners David Blitzer and Josh Harris, and the one led by Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca — and told them it was going with the gang led by Boehly.
We assume the conversation went something like “well played, chaps, but we are going with the guy who has been trying to buy Chelsea for years and did not blink this week when we asked you all to guarantee another £500 million for Roman’s charity fund”.
But while America was waking up, Ratcliffe informed The Times he was willing to put £2.5 billion into Abramovich’s charity and commit £1.75 billion for the stadium rebuild and subsidising the club over the next 10 years. As his subsequent press release puts it: “This is a British bid, for a British club.”
The Athletic understands this bid went direct to Chelsea, not Raine. The bank appeared to be unaware of the details of Ratcliffe’s bid hours after the US business papers had crowned Boehly as champion. To be fair, there are not many details in Ratcliffe’s statement — it is more of a mission statement than a fully-funded offer — but there is little doubt that they did not see this coming.
We understand Ratcliffe only decided to enter the fray this week but has moved quickly to get himself in a position to make what he believes is the most compelling offer. For example, he has spoken to the British government, which has a veto over this sale.
He is understood to have been in London this week, presumably speaking to his bankers. He has not found time to speak to any fan groups, though.
“Ratcliffe can win if he really wants to because he will be backed by Ineos and he could just increase the corporate credit lines to fund this purchase,” says one source who has dealt with the British businessman before. “Boehly and the others have to deal with the members of their syndicates.”
Ineos made post-tax profits of £1.7 billion last year. There is little doubt that Ratcliffe can afford Chelsea and he is believed to be confident he can close this deal in a matter of days. Time is short, after all. Chelsea are only fulfilling their fixtures because they have been given a special licence to operate. It expires at the end of May.
So, he has time but only if Raine is willing to tell Boehly, Blitzer, Harris, Pagliuca and all the other billionaires who have followed its timetable that it is not personal but £4.25 billion from Britain’s richest sports fan — who just so happens to be a Brexit-supporting, flag-waving patriot, albeit one domiciled in Monaco — beats £4 billion from a collection of American-based businessmen and private equity funds.
So Ratcliffe is serious then?
Can you build a global petrochemicals giant, amass a fortune of more than £12 billion and take holidays in the North and South Pole without being serious?
Yes, we think it is safe to say that a guy who started life in a council house in Oldham but now spreads his time between Monaco and luxury homes on the Hampshire coast and the shores of Lake Geneva, is serious about buying companies. He built Ineos, the fourth largest chemicals producer in the world, by buying more than 20 businesses, plants and refineries in a decade. The 69-year-old Brit is good at this.
For most of his career, Ratcliffe has stayed out of the limelight. But the often-controversial nature of his business, his disputes with trade unions and governments and, it must be said, his phenomenal success has brought more and more attention. He has started to spend his money on projects that invite scrutiny, namely sport.
He bought FC Lausanne-Sport in 2017, not long after the local authorities committed to building them a new stadium, and then partnered with Olympic sailing champion Sir Ben Ainslie to compete for the America’s Cup, a patriotic punt that cost him more than £100 million.
In 2019, he bought the world’s most successful cycling outfit, Team Sky, rebranding them Team Ineos. The change of name did not seem to slow the British-based team down, they won that summer’s Tour de France, and he picked up another French prize later that year when he purchased Ligue 1 Nice.
Since then, he funded Eliud Kipchoge’s successful attempt to run a marathon in under two hours, became F1 team Mercedes’ principal partner and started sponsoring rugby union’s All Blacks.
And now, he is back for Chelsea. Because shortly before Ratcliffe opted for the cheaper option of Nice — more convenient for his official tax base, too — he made a polite inquiry about Chelsea’s availability.
A Manchester United fan as a boy, the tycoon has been a season ticket-holder at Stamford Bridge as an adult. But he and Abramovich, another who made his fortune from fossils, could not agree on a price in 2019. The Russian wanted £2.5 billion but that was before anyone was talking about charitable foundations, frozen assets or 10-year infrastructure commitments. Ratcliffe told him that was too much and he spent £80 million on Nice, instead.
Three years on, with Abramovich’s time in London on the clock, Ratcliffe appears to think £2.5 billion up front is about right for the world and European champions. Timing is everything.
Does this mean we should expect more last-gasp bids?
Well, we did not expect this one, so it would be silly to say another was impossible. But it is hard to see where they would come from.
The Raine process appears to have shaken out all the US-based sports entrepreneurs who want to add a Premier League team to their portfolios right now, and mooted bids from Africa, Asia and the Middle East failed to get much beyond Twitter.
It is possible, we suppose, that now we have got to crunch time and everyone is talking about a figure in the region of £2.5 billion for the club/charity plus £1.5 billion or so for keeping Chelsea in the manner to which they have become accustomed, there are all the ingredients for someone to swoop in and be masterful. Someone like Elon Musk, for example, but he appears to be stuck on Twitter.
Perhaps the bidding groups who deigned to take part in Raine’s process could realign themselves. After all, they are all syndicates of like-minded individuals, some of whom have done business together before.
But how much drama does one club takeover saga need? There is more than enough here for the fly-on-the-wall documentary.
What does this mean for Ratcliffe’s stake in Nice?
Ah, finally, an easy one.
For the time being, nothing. It means as much as Harris and Blitzer’s stake in Crystal Palace or Pagliuca’s shares in Italian side Atalanta — a bridge we may need to cross but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
But, for the sake of this exercise, if Ratcliffe buys Chelsea, he cannot keep Nice. Not unless he wants to turn one or the other into a farm team with no aspirations of competing in European club competition. Nice, for what its worth, are fifth in Ligue 1 and they play Nantes in the French Cup final next month. They are having a good season.
Lausanne-Sport, on the other hand, are having a stinker. They are certain to be relegated to Switzerland’s second tier. He can keep them.
(Top image: Getty Images)