Remember when NCAA programs, basketball or football, would impose sanctions on themselves in the hopes it would keep the NCAA’s great wandering eye from looking at them too closely? And then if that didn’t work, the coach would have to fall on his sword? That’s sort of what’s happening with Roman Abramovich and Chelsea right now.
You may have missed on Saturday that Abramovich tried to first distance himself from the running of the club by giving “stewardship” of it to the heads of Chelsea’s charity foundation. The hope would have been that by publicly leaving the day-to-day to someone else, the club might avoid being seized or frozen when and if sanctions on Abramovich come down from the UK government. We’ll circle back to this.
However, that move didn’t take. It was unclear how much of a move it would have been in a vacuum anyway, as Abramovich hasn’t really been involved in the inner workings of the team for quite a while, if he ever was. He’s just the money. On top of that, those who run the charitable wing didn’t immediately accept taking over leadership, because it’s pretty cloudy if you can run the for-profit side and be head of the charity side at the same time.
So today, Abramovich took the next step and put the club up for sale. Again, this appears to be Abramovich jumping before he’s pushed, and if they can wrap it up in time, keeping his favorite toy from being stuck in neutral. The asking price is £3 billion, or about $4.1 billion. Might want to see what you’ve got in your change bucket by the door there.
The reason Abramovich seems a little desperate to get out of town is that Parliament have been discussing freezing all of his assets in the UK in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One MP has said that Abramovich is trying to sell his home and other real estate in London ahead of what might be coming.
The UK government hasn’t acted against Abramovich yet, partly due to the fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one of those people who thinks 2+2=DUHHHHRRRRR. But who knows how long that will last.
It’s not the first time that Abramovich has run afoul of the UK government for the actions of the Russian government. His visa renewal was delayed in 2018 in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in England (check out “The Salisbury Poisonings” docudrama streaming on AMC for more). He’s under the microscope now because of his ties to Vladimir Putin. While never clear what exactly their relationship is, Abramovich is one of those who benefitted from the privatization of nationalized industries in Russia during Perestroika, and Putin told all of the oligarchs he would look the other way on their fortunes as long as they didn’t use their wealth and power against him. That’s how Mikhail Khodorkovsky ended up in prison for 10 years. The British government is convinced Abramovich is part of Putin’s circle and state.
Whenever Abramovich does pick up sticks, and it’s hardly the main concern of all of this, it will leave Chelsea in something of a different state. Abramovich has put $2 billion of his own money into the club as a loan over the years of his ownership, though he says he will not be looking to recoup that in the sale. The list of people who can run Chelsea at that level is awfully short.
But, for the past few years, Chelsea haven’t run like the perception of them has been. They haven’t spent lavishly when considering what they make on sales. This season, they actually made $5 million in transfers even after buying Roman Lukaku, thanks to the sales of Tammy Abraham, Kurt Zouma, and Fikayo Tomori. Last year’s splurge was due to having to sit on all their Eden Hazard money from the previous season thanks to their transfer ban from UEFA.
Still, Chelsea’s wage bill, reported at $243 million per season, is among the top in all of Europe, and again the list of possible buyers who could maintain that isn’t all that long.
What may help Chelsea the club is that Abramovich doesn’t exactly have a lot of leverage. He may ask for $4 billion, but if the hammer is truly going to come down sometime in the near future he might just have to take what he can get. He has employed Raine Group to facilitate the sale and they’ll want to take their time, but they might not have it.
Strange days indeed.