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A billionaire completes a spectacular takeover of one of the world’s most cherished sporting institutions and immediately goes on a lavish, jawbone-loosening spending spree. New signings pile up like presents under the Christmas tree. Debts spiral into the hundreds of millions, piquing the ire and envy of their rivals. But on its own terms, it works: success is duly bought, the people placated, the sport gently bent to its will.
This is the story of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team under Todd Boehly and his business partners and, for all the sense of cataclysm and upheaval surrounding Chelsea of late, what is most striking of all is what hasn’t changed. Results on the pitch have largely been maintained: the same players and the same coach playing roughly the same level of football in front of roughly the same people. Third place and Champions League football next season were secured. And now one ambitious tycoon has simply been replaced by another.
It’s easy to forget, amid all the familiar mood music, the unspeakable strangeness of the events that have led us to this point. The systematic murder of the Ukrainian people has largely been forgotten, or at the very least internalised, by the game at large. Shall we talk about the lessons football can learn from its indulgence of a man accused by the UK government of having “the blood of the Ukrainian people on his hands”? Or shall we talk about what this all means for Romelu Lukaku’s future? Football has long had an unmatched talent for extracting the serious from the trivial, and the last few weeks have proven that the reverse is perhaps also true.
We have seen this, too, in some of the fawning early press coverage of Boehly’s arrival in London. Look, he stopped to take a selfie with some fans! Look, he wears a hoodie and jeans just like a normal person! Perhaps there is a legitimate point of difference here with the reclusive and untouchable Roman Abramovich, the sincere hope among Chelsea fans that this ownership may offer more of a recognisable human face. But equally, let’s remember what matters and what doesn’t.
Mike Ashley wore a Newcastle shirt and drank pints in the stands. Michael Knighton stood on the Old Trafford pitch juggling a football. The Venkys promised to bring Ronaldinho to Blackburn Rovers. None of this was a reliable portent of anything at all. If you can afford to buy a Premier League football club, let’s assume you can also afford to hire a PR firm.
And so, amid all the smoke and misdirection, what can we realistically expect from Boehly-era Chelsea? The prevailing view seems to be that Chelsea will be run along the lines of the Dodgers, who over the past decade have been transformed from wasteful underachievers into one of the sport’s pre-eminent forces and – by some distance – its biggest spenders.
In the first four years under the ownership of Guggenheim – the management company of which Boehly was the president – the Dodgers spent $1bn on new players. Attendances steadily began to rise. In 2020 the Dodgers finally ended their 32-year wait for a World Series win.
If the skeletal details of the Dodgers takeover bear some similarities with Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003, then closer scrutiny also reveals some of the differences. The Dodgers in 2012 were a serially failing organisation, characterised not just by mismanagement and apathy but a basic sense of waste. There was plenty of low-hanging fruit to be picked off; easy streams of revenue to be tapped.
But Chelsea will not be allowed to sell their own television rights, as the Dodgers did in a remarkable £6.8bn deal with Time Warner to set up their own dedicated channel. They do not own much of the land around Stamford Bridge, limiting the possibilities for expansion and redevelopment. The scouting and youth development structures – significantly beefed up under Guggenheim – are already well-funded and largely profitable. Of course there are inefficiencies – cough, Saúl Ñíguez on £200,000 a week – but as an organisation Chelsea in 2022 is starting from a much higher base, raising the open-ended question of what, exactly, success will look like.
It is here that we come to the flipside of the Boehly masterplan: a virtuous circle of investment and revenue generation that will suit Chelsea fans just fine, as long as they don’t mind doing a lot of the investing themselves. Success has come at a steep price for Dodgers supporters: the cheapest season tickets at Dodger Stadium now cost £1,400, more than four times as much as they did a decade ago. The most expensive are more than £13,000, a rise of almost 150%.
Parking prices have risen at a similar rate. A portion of fries in a plastic baseball helmet will cost you £8. And while the 2013 Time Warner deal was a clear win for the bottom line, it essentially excommunicated the 50% of the southern California population who couldn’t receive the new channel until 2020.
This, perhaps, is the real defining theme of Boehly’s vision for elite sport: as a premium consumer entertainment, cold product served with warm feelings. Of course Chelsea fans matter in all this: after all, you are his co-investors, partners in this giddy enterprise. You’re going on a journey with him. He promises you thrills, lavish hospitality, a front-row seat to the greatest show on earth. In the meantime, he’s going to pass you over to Dana, who will take your direct debit mandate and provide you with further details of exciting new products in the CFC metaverse.
In a way, this is the principal distinction between the Abramovich and Boehly eras. For Chelsea fans, the Abramovich years were a sugar-coated dreamscape, an abundant pageant whose surrealness derived from the fact that nobody could really work out why any of this was happening.
Protection? Politics? Prestige? Pure vibes? Boehly, by contrast, is a creature of pure commerce, of green and red arrows, of graphs and 10-year yields. You can cheer him through the front door or you can turn your back. But at least nobody can say they weren’t warned.