Basketball’s equivalent of Lionel Messi when he played for the LA Lakers in the 1980s is the man who switched Boehly on to sport as a glory game rather than a mere media rights play.
Boehly gets sport — he was a high-school wrestling champion — but is a finance man at heart. From his offices in Greenwich, Connecticut he crunches numbers and makes strategic investment plays for the company he founded, Eldridge, which manages £40billion worth of assets.
American tycoon Todd Boehly is on course to become the new Chelsea owner
Boehly’s interest in sport as a business, specifically the huge potential of its content rights, was initially piqued in 2012. The LA Dodgers baseball franchise was a famous but failing brand, financially distressed and in need of rescue.
Contrary to popular opinion, Boehly felt there was significantly more money to be made in a media landscape that increasingly was about specialised content, with Netflix about to explode. And in baseball you own your rights, unlike in the NFL or Premier League, which is shared centrally.
He did the maths and with a group of investors, including Mark Walter, who is part of his Chelsea bid, they bought the Dodgers at a time when their TV rights were worth around $5bn a year.
A year later, they did a 25-year deal with Time Warner valuing those rights at $8bn a year and then used the guarantee of that money to outspend the New York Yankees and assemble the highest-paid baseball team in history.
Basketball legend Magic Johnson was drafted in as a consultant at the LA Dodgers
Much of it comes down to Johnson, who was drafted in as both an investor and consultant. ‘He just pounded in on us all along: “We have to win! If we’re in Los Angeles, you have to win!”,’ Boehly told Yahoo last year.
‘He came from the most decorated franchise [LA Lakers] in the US, so having him as our partner, continually reminding us of that, having LA as a market, being able to the get team together, getting the energy going…we did a lot of transactions early on, we did the biggest trade ever with Boston Red Sox. We got Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto and that really was a jolt of energy, as ultimately we wanted to get fans back in the stadium and feeling passionate about winning.’
The names may not mean much over here but were the equivalent of Abramovich turning up in 2003 and signing Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele, Damien Duff and Adrian Mutu.
‘You always have to keep remembering the fans are the centre,’ said Boehly. ‘The second you ever veer, just go back to: “Think about the fans”. If you’re always wearing that fans’ eye and thinking about it from that perspective, and you have the good fortune of having a major market like Los Angeles, those two things go together very nicely.’
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In terms of big names driving success, he is in the Abramovich mould. Bids for Declan Rice or Harry Kane could be incoming, though realistically neither would succeed this summer. Benfica’s Darwin Nunez may be more realistic. Yet they will undoubtedly want a signature signing to announce their arrival.
They are also a great fit for the Chelsea culture, embedded from Abramovich’s early days, that you need to win. Find a way, whatever the way, even in a bad season, to deliver a League Cup or a Europa League. And, of course, in the good years you want a Premier League or Champions League.
‘From our point of view the LA Dodgers looked a really interesting opportunity and something fun and exciting,’ said Boehly. ‘We won eight National League West titles in a row and a World Series and we want to keep winning.’
Indeed, it is hard to find a Dodgers fan with a bad word to say about the Boehly consortium. They have signed big names, won trophies and renovated the stadium. The latter is a must at Stamford Bridge and there will be a gradual rebuild, refurbishing a stand at a time over 10 years.
However, there is a huge area where Boehly is not like Abramovich. Chelsea run their books up to the limit of Premier League financial rules, which allow you to lose about £35m a year. As one Premier League owner said: ‘There really aren’t many people in the world happy to lose £35m a year.’
Chelsea was put up for sale in March when Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
And Boehly is not one of them. Indeed, opinion is split as to how smart he has been. One owner said the stadium redevelopment will be a nightmare and that they are over-estimating the future value of digital rights. Another thinks they must see value in a technological breakthrough or the evolution of the Premier League’s own Netflix-style streaming service to see an uplift in content rights over the next ten years. Unlike Abramovich, Boehly is here to make money, not to lose it and clean up his reputation. While by normal standards he is among the super rich, among his peers he is a junior financial partner.
Walters is lead investor at the Dodgers. At Chelsea, Clearlake Capital, led by billionaires Jose E Feliciano and Behdad Eghbali, will put in 66 per cent of the funds. But, as at the Dodgers, it is Boehly who leads the way. He is the energy and drive behind the bid.
His choice of partners has been smart, mostly people with whom he has long-standing relationships. Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss and British entrepreneur Jonathan Goldstein are long-time confidants. Newcomers are Daniel Finkelstein and Barbara Charone, who will be non-executive board members. Even those were careful appointments, genuine fans with expertise to offer and a grasp of the local landscape that ought to mean they will avoid making the usual North American cultural gaffes.
Such as backing a European Super League. Were it not for Finkelstein’s involvement, you would assume their assessment was that the Super League is coming, despite last year’s failed coup d’etat, and that a FIFA World Club Cup will follow shortly, allowing income streams to continue to soar.
The reported £4.25bn bid for the club includes an £1.75bn upgrade to Stamford Bridge
However, Finkelstein sat on Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of football and is on-board because these owners have said they will never back a breakaway league and that they get that jeopardy is part of football’s global attraction.
A golden share will be offered to fans with the right to veto culturally sensitive decisions and they will continue to assemble a shadow board of elected fans.
However, it will be interesting to see where they stand on UEFA plans to insulate the Premier League’s Big Six with near-guaranteed Champions League access based on their history. If they really want to buy trust, they would lead the opposition to that iniquitous proposal, which amounts to a Super League by stealth. Just how much jeopardy do financiers really want?
Finkelstein will also bring football credibility to the job. He championed data as a football tool in his Times column The Fink Tank, which started in 2002. One of the first statisticians he hired was a young Cambridge University physics PhD and stats blogger with few football credentials, Ian Graham.
It is hard to find a Dodgers fan with a bad word to say about the Boehly consortium
He graduated from being Finkelstein’s research assistant to Liverpool’s Director of Research and is now characterised as the smartest man in football, credited as a reason why Liverpool keep getting it right in the transfer market and also key to the recruitment of Jurgen Klopp. Chelsea have a team of data scientists, as all teams do, but they will be given even more profile in the new Chelsea.
Boehly and his team now have big decisions to make. Those signature signings need to be prepared now. They do not have a director of football. Their best bet will be to promote Petr Cech to that role.
There seems no chance of directors Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia staying given their relationship with Abramovich, but Granovskaia may be required to help manage this transfer window.
There are also pressing issues which manager Thomas Tuchel will want sorted. Where are his defenders for next season, as an entire back three prepares to leave? Who replaces Romelu Lukaku, assuming they can sell the striker? And who shores up his midfield, with Jorginho also expected to quit the club?
Boehly and his team are likely to confirm that they are tying up the details to buy the club this week.
It was reported to be a £4.25bn bid, that included £1.75bn to upgrade the stadium, which does not represent a significant difference to the other three bids.
The deal has to be done by May 31, the UK Government’s deadline, which makes it hard for late bidder Jim Ratcliffe to disrupt proceedings. The Premier League need the Government to have approved new owners by the time next season’s league is constituted on June 8.
The hard work starts now. Boehly and his team may have won the beauty parade of the super rich Americans, but judgement will be suspended on whether they are fit to wear the crown.