By Eddie Taylor
Reports of Roman Abramovich putting the London club up for sale are certain to tempt buyers from the oil-rich kingdom
Reporting in the Sunday Times newspaper over the weekend suggests that Roman Abramovich has – without much fanfare – put Chelsea Football Club up for sale.
While it should be noted that Chelsea issued a statement denying the reports, any sale could well spark a footrace from investors around the world for a slice of both the riches of the English Premier League – the most lucrative domestic league on the planet – and the possibilities that come with a healthy chunk of real estate on London’s fashionable King’s Road.
According to the report, Abramovich has quietly let it be known that he would accept something close to £2bn ($2.57bn) for the club he purchased back in July 2003 for an initial investment of £30m ($38.5m) – a deal that valued the club at just £60m ($77m). The Russian tycoon subsequently invested something close to £1.2b ($1.54b) to turn a middling Premier League outfit into the champions of England and, in 2012, Europe. Despite winning the Premier League for a fifth time as recently as 18 months ago, however, sources in the capital believe that the Russian has lost some of his passion for the project, prompting his desire to now listen to offers.
The Times suggests Abramovich has already brought in consultants from the Raine Group, a specialist bank part-owned by Mubadala, to seek interest from investors in China, the United States and Middle East. Naturally, it will appeal to prospective buyers from the latter, a region that has frequently sought to exploit the earning potential of English football.
Current champions Manchester City, owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is the most obvious and successful example, but in the last decade clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Bristol Rovers have attracted purchasers from the Arab world. Intriguingly, it emerged over the weekend that Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, cousin of Sheikh Mansour, had submitted repeated bids for Liverpool of £2bn – the amount Abramovich is reportedly seeking – in late 2017 and early 2018. It’s not unreasonable to think Chelsea’s availability could tempt him to switch targets.
Then there’s Saudi Arabia, which is also seeking to increase its presence on the football stage. Their sole interest in the English game thus far is second-tier Sheffield United, 50% of which is owned by Prince Abdullah Bin Musa’ad Bin Abdul Aziz, who has spent much of 2018 trying to acquire the remaining half. Indeed, in June the Sheffield Star newspaper quoted sources saying that “it is only a matter of time before the Kingdom acquires a stake, possibly through its Public Investment Fund, in a team overseas”. Chelsea would tick most of the boxes for Gulf investors. Its West London home is familiar – and accessible – territory for the wealthy Arab elite, and the accompanying real estate, which includes a hotel and restaurants, is able to provide year-round income and a future-proof investment.
As it is, the appeal of the Premier League around the world mean that the club’s annual turnover is more than £360m. For Saudi, there’s also the status such a purchase would bring. With Vision 2030 on the horizon, the ability to project the country to a global audience in the way Abu Dhabi – and its airline – has managed with Manchester City and Dubai has with the ubiquity of the Emirates logo in sporting stadia around the world is an obvious draw.
According to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the UK’s Salford University, Saudi Arabia is certainly wanting to “exert more influence on world football and upon other countries through football”, which it sees as a way “to achieve some sort of parity with its near neighbours such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have spent heavily on various aspects of football.” With the pound sliding against the dollar-backed riyal, that £2bn might even begin to feel like a bargain.