Should we be shocked that a guy who owns stakes in 100 different companies is a fan of the multi-club model?
No, of course not. After all, one of the “companies” Todd Boehly owns a chunk of is the Los Angeles Dodgers and they have four farm teams of their own and links with three more. The American billionaire might be new to football but he is an old hand at empires.
But it was still something of a surprise to hear Chelsea’s co-owner tell a crowd of New York fund managers that he was going to buy teams “in Portugal or Belgium or somewhere like that” so the mother club had somewhere to park its teenage superstars while they learn their trade and earn the points needed for a UK work permit. Premier League club owners do not usually spell out their plans for global domination quite so publicly.
The Athletic explores the countries and clubs Boehly might want to explore…
So, Portugal then?
If we take Boehly at his word, and we probably should, the first Chelsea satellite will be in Portugal, a country he described in his Q&A at last week’s SALT conference as the “perfect place” to stash South Americans until he can “get them on the pitch in Chelsea”.
England and Portugal go way back. English crusaders helped King Afonso capture Lisbon from the Moors in 1147 and agent Jorge Mendes has been returning the favour ever since, most notably at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Boehly and Chelsea’s academy boss Neil Bath met Mendes in June — with Cristiano Ronaldo’s future among the subjects discussed — so it is likely that Boehly has already seen a few brochures.
Portugal, runners-up at last year’s European Under-21 Championship, produces lots of players — there were 10 in the starting line-ups when Wolves hosted Manchester City on Saturday — and it has always been a great landing spot for Brazilian talent.
Boehly told the audience in New York that he is looking for clubs in “highly competitive” European leagues and the country’s Primeira Liga fits the bill, as it is ranked sixth by European football’s governing body UEFA.
According to the Football Association’s criteria for work permits, known as “governing body endorsements” (GBEs), the Primeira Liga is a “band two” competition, which means players get 10 points for playing in it and another five points if they play half of their team’s “available minutes”. Ten plus five equals 15 and an “auto pass”. In other words, “welcome to the Premier League, son, you’re in”.
The Portuguese league has already demonstrated that it is open to overseas investment. For example, Crystal Palace co-owner David Blitzer, another billionaire with a Wall Street background, is the majority owner of Estoril Praia. That probably takes them off the board, although Blitzer has so many sports franchises he might not miss this one.
One option could be Vizela in north-west Portugal. Having spent years as Braga’s unofficial farm team, they reached the top flight for the first time in 36 years in 2021 and finished 14th out of 18 last season. They are owned by a Chinese group and there is not a Chinese-owned club in Europe that is not for sale.
Or Chelsea’s owners could take a page out of the manual Robert Platek followed at Casa Pia. The American, a partner at computing billionaire Michael Dell’s private equity firm MSD, has quietly built a multi-club group. Spezia in Italy’s Serie A are his flagship but Casa Pia have earned two promotions in three years to reach the Primeira Liga for the first time since 1939.
Or maybe Boehly will think, “I’ve got the Dodgers, the Lakers and Chelsea — I am going for one of Portugal’s big dogs”. And, in theory, Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon are available because they are listed companies.
There are two big problems, though. One, the shares in Portugal’s big three are infamously illiquid — their shareholders just do not want to sell. John Textor, the American who owns 40 per cent of Crystal Palace and majority stakes in Belgium’s RWD Molenbeek and Brazil’s Botafogo, turned his attention to French side Lyon earlier this year, having spent a chunk of last year trying to buy Benfica. That deal proved to be too complicated, too controversial.
But the fact that Textor even tried and is still full steam ahead for Lyon, leads us to the second potential problem that any portfolio-builder has when they consider what to put in their basket…
Hang on, can you even own two big teams?
The issue here is UEFA’s rule that two clubs controlled by the same person or group cannot compete in the same European club competition. The reason for this is obvious: would Formula 1-style team orders apply if they played each other?
Well, it was obvious, but in 2017, UEFA let German runners-up RB Leipzig and Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg both play in the Champions League. This was after Leipzig, who are 99 per cent-owned by the eponymous energy-drink firm and play at the Red Bull Arena, managed to convince the governing body that “no individual or legal entity had a decisive influence” over them and their Austrian cousins.
“Red Bull does a really good job,” said Boehly last week. “They’ve got Leipzig and Salzburg and both of them are playing in the Champions League, so they’ve figured out how to make that work.”
This “figuring out” might explain why Chelsea want to hire Salzburg’s Christoph Freund as their new sporting director. They were confident they had their man but The Athletic reported on Monday that the 45-year-old may opt to stay in Austria.
Despite that development, Chelsea are already establishing a team which knows how to run a network of clubs. Tom Glick and Damian Willoughby, two executives who used to work for the Manchester City-centred galaxy of clubs, the City Football Group (CFG), have already started at Chelsea. They will not be the last to make that LinkedIn journey.
CFG, for what it’s worth, now has clubs in 11 countries with a 12th (Brazil) on the horizon. It would appear unlikely that Chelsea are going to stop at two.
Where next, then?
Belgium was the other country mentioned by Boehly and its Jupiler Pro League is also a “band two” league. The country has also been very open to overseas multi-clubbers, with half of its 30 professional clubs part of wider groups. Eight of those, across the top two divisions, are linked with clubs in the UK.
There are three Belgian top-flight sides ripe for the picking: Cercle Brugge, KV Kortrijk and KV Mechelen.
Stop me if you have heard this before but Cercle are owned by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who also owns Monaco. Unlike Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich, he has not been sanctioned since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so he does not have to sell but is thought to be open to offers.
Kortrijk are part of Vincent Tan’s stable of clubs, alongside Cardiff City, FK Sarajevo and Los Angeles FC. The Malaysian entrepreneur has been trying to exit the football business for years. Mechelen’s Belgian owners are also believed to be willing to stand aside should an adequately sized cheque come along.
The downside with Belgian football, though, is it has got a bit crowded. With every other club doing the data-led, youth-orientated, multi-club thing, it is difficult to find those differentials.
And this is why many American investors are looking at France, where le monde is your huitre, great players are plentiful and the top flight is “band one” and therefore worth 12 GBE points. Remember, you only need 15.
Angers, Auxerre, Lens and Lorient in Ligue 1 are all thought to be on the block, as is most of Ligue 2, which is “band four” and worth six GBE points.
CFG’s French foreign legion are at Troyes and they won Ligue 2 in 2021. RedBird, the American private equity firm founded by Gerry Cardinale, owns Toulouse and AC Milan. Nice are owned by the guy whom Boehly and Clearlake pipped to Chelsea, Sir Jim Ratcliffe. The British billionaire also owns Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland and is believed to have his eye on a well-known football brand in the north west of England.
The multi-clubbers are massing in France but they have not quite taken over yet.
The Netherlands is another safe European home that Boehly and his Clearlake partners might consider. After all, Chelsea had an informal link with Vitesse Arnhem between 2009 and 2021 that saw 29 Chelsea-owned players appear on loan for the Dutch side. Mason Mount was Vitesse’s player of the season in 2018.
However, Vitesse have just been snapped up by — yes, you guessed it — a group of American investors who already own a club in Belgium’s third tier and a minority stake in League Two’s Leyton Orient. And the feeling of deja vu is even stronger with this one, as Vitesse used to be owned by Russian businessman Valeri Oyf. Unlike his friend Roman Abramovich, Oyf has not been sanctioned for his links to Vladimir Putin but he put Vitesse up for sale soon after Russia attacked Ukraine.
But, generally speaking, the Dutch have not been quite so receptive to multi-club investors as their neighbours. CFG’s attempt to add NAC Breda to its conglomerate ended earlier this year when the club’s fans made their feelings about being added to the group very clear. “Stay out of our territory, NAC is not a City Group story,” said one banner which made its way to Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.
Buying a stake in German clubs is equally difficult, thanks to the country’s 50+1 ownership rule — 50 per cent plus one share of the voting rights in a club must be held by the clubs’ members in any Bundesliga side — that means most of Germany’s clubs are still controlled by their supporters.
Spain has seen some inward investment — CFG owns a stake in Girona, for example — but La Liga has been a tough nut to crack for outsiders.
Italy, on the other hand, is opening up fast, with North American ownership there becoming almost as common as it is in the Premier League. The complaint you hear from those who have tried it, however, is that Italian football is expensive and every new boss is immediately faced with a stadium problem. As mentioned, that did not deter RedBird, and CFG, naturally, has its flag in the ground in Palermo.
If Boehly was tempted to join them, then the owners of Hellas Verona and Sampdoria might be receptive to a conversation. They have already been in talks with Pacific Media Group, the sprawling collection of clubs that includes Barnsley, Nancy and Oostende.
Sure, it is a big world out there and, as Boehly has realised, football is global in a way baseball is not. Brazil looks like it might be the location for the next multi-club gold rush. Red Bull is already there, as is Textor, and CFG is coming. There will be others along soon.
Nothing Boehly said last week suggests he is interested in building an empire with outposts in leagues that make more sense in terms of commercial opportunities — or soft power — than player development. So that would appear to rule out setting up mini-Chelseas in China or India. The US, though? Maybe, although MLS is only a “band four” league, the same as the top flights in Croatia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.
Multi-club value shoppers are looking at all those leagues, by the way, and Greece, Poland, Serbia, Sweden and Turkey: anywhere that has ever produced decent players, really.
Does any of this make it right, though? How should English fans feel about their clubs effectively setting up B teams offshore? Would we want somebody to do that to our club?
Boehly’s interrogator at the SALT conference did not ask these follow-up questions, unfortunately. Wrong crowd. His audience of asset managers and allocators wanted to know how he approaches investment opportunities.
“The bet in credit is, generally, as long as the business is worth more than your attachment point, you’re going to be OK,” he explained.
“It might not be a fun ride but if you get your money back… or, even in a bad situation, you get 85 cents on the dollar, that’s not a horrible outcome.
“You always have to be thinking about what this business is really worth, where am I attached to it and what’s the future of this business.”
And with that cheery thought, let us wish Boehly and partners a successful shopping trip, and try not to think too much about what a “bad situation” might mean for the fans of a failed investment.
(Top photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
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Portugal, Belgium and… Brazil? Assessing Chelsea’s multi-club options
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