The Chelsea takeover will be a step into the unknown for all European football

Date published: Wednesday 25th May 2022 10:39 - Ian King

Todd Boehly, the new owner of Chelsea

Confirmation of the Boehly-led takeover marks the beginning of a new era for Chelsea at a time of high tension within European club football.

 

So the deal is approved and a new era begins at Stamford Bridge. So long as the criteria of the sanctions were met, there was never much doubt that this was going to happen. Todd Boehly and the others who passed through football’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test would never have failed it, and there’s no evidence to suggest that they should. But as the announcement that the final hurdles to this takeover have been cleared marks the end of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, so another begins. Chelsea are set to become a very different club in some respects, but what might this look like?

Boehly’s recipe for success with the LA Dodgers, the underachieving baseball team whose potential he unlocked, was blunt. Big spending, based on huge revenue increases. He was able to sell rights for the Dodgers for a staggering amount of money ($7bn, early in 2013), and this, combined with huge ticket price increases, allowed the team to buy its way back to success. This is, of course, a fundamental change to the way in which the club was run under its previous ownership, when big spending was ultimately underwritten by the owner himself.

It’s the huge revenue increases that cause the raising of an eyebrow, because that money has to come from somewhere, at some point. Chelsea have been, based on near-perpetual Champions League football and being near the top of the Premier League table, a loss-making organisation. Add in all the commercial deals and other accompaniments and still Roman kept having to put his hand in his pocket, to a lesser or greater extent. This season, for the record, they made £43.4m from Champions League TV and prize money and £155m in domestic TV and prize money.

So, what happens next? Chelsea’s season tickets aren’t particularly expensive, by the standards of the biggest clubs in London. This season, for example, their cheapest cost almost £300 less than the cheapest at Arsenal. But Chelsea are stuck in a bit of a bind, with regard to redeveloping Stamford Bridge. Its current capacity is 40,834 and space to rebuild is limited. There has been some movement on this recently, but whatever happens, redevelopment will be expensive. One of the many, many peculiarities of this sale was that Chelsea were being sold debt-free. It seems unlikely that this will be able to continue for very long.

Then there’s the small matter of their position within the politics of the European game. War continues to rage between new money and old, and if elite-level football is eventually to fold into some sort of cold war, with PSG and Real Madrid as the superpowers pointing at each other and growling, on which side might Boehly come to rest? Under Abramovich, Chelsea were considered to be on the side of the new, but the other American owners of big clubs in England own ‘old money clubs’: Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United, where an order that benefitted them has been shaken up by the oil money.

But the way in which Boehly made a lot of the money that funded the Dodgers’ success – they won the World Series in 2020, for the first time since 1988 – was through a huge television deal which was described as ‘horrendous’ for fans. Collective contracts have protected football in England from spiking in a similar way, but there’s nothing to suggest that this will stay the same forever, and Boehly’s arrival in the Premier League may add one to the number of its opponents. And it may line him up with the ‘old money clubs’, who’d likely benefit significantly from the end of collective bargaining on TV deals, as we saw in Spain when it happened there. It was eventually ended by a change in law.

In the more immediate future, much has been made of a £200m sum that is being made available to Thomas Tuchel this summer, but where Chelsea already need reinforcement is already common knowledge. Antonio Rudiger is off to Real Madrid. Andreas Christensen is off to Barcelona, where he may be joined by Cesar Azpilicueta, despite Azpilicueta having a year added to his contract in March (this was not considered to be breaching the sanctions that were in place at the time). The same may go for Marcos Alonso. Add in the uncertainty that continues to follow Romelu Lukaku at the end of a desperately underwhelming season, and it seems pretty clear where that money may need to be spent. There may well be a ‘marquee’ signing to mark the start of the new ownership, sent out as a message of intent to other clubs.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Boehly’s group won’t follow the path that he took to restore the fortunes of the LA Dodgers. He may take one look at the landscape of European football and conclude that it would be near-impossible to do so. But it’s also possible that they could see it all quite differently and conclude that the best thing for their club would be to look towards replacing its existing power structures with something (even) more beneficial to their narrow interests.

And that comes to affect the supporters of all football clubs, because the trickledown economics of football don’t apply themselves in the way that their advocates usually suggest they will. The biggest downward trickle of the last 30 years within football’s weird economic bubble has been the hyper-inflation of wages rather than actual money.

We already know the extent of European football’s cold war, of the absurd arms race that built up between PSG and Real Madrid over the services of Kylian Mbappe. We already know that the plans for a European Super League haven’t gone anywhere, and that forthcoming revisions to the structure of the Champions League will likely only be a stopover on a path of perpetual change.

As such, a change of ownership at a club the size of Chelsea is important by definition. But all that we can say for certain right now is that Chelsea will change with the new owner because they will have to, and that European club football also seems set to change, whether we like it or not. As the decision-makers behind the former and a decision-maker behind the latter, what that different football club ends up looking like will almost certainly matter to the whole of the game. And as for whether £4.25bn represents good value… well, that rather depends on what comes next. All we know for sure is that someone will have to pay for it.

More Related Articles