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OPINION

Sideways: Chelsea heartbreak for plucky City structuring team

It looks like Chelsea bid heartbreak for the structuring team at asset manager Centricus, but football financing is a funny old game and it’s never over until the final whistle blows.

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Photo: iStock

The sale of Chelsea football club has attracted an odd assortment of financiers, many of them suddenly keen to disclose that they are “lifelong fans” of a team that represents a rare opportunity to buy a top sports franchise with global appeal.

Boutique investment bank Raine Group is handling a sale that was forced by the sanctions placed on Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Its principals include Raine’s co-founder Joe Ravitch and Colin Neville, who is not a lesser-known third Neville brother alongside former Manchester United players Gary and Phil but is instead a dealmaker who runs Raine’s sports practice.

Confusingly for a UK reader, Neville states that he is “a former Division 1 athlete.” That does not mean the old first division of English football before the rebranding that created the premier league in 1992, however.

Division 1 in the US refers to a student athlete who plays at a high level while in college – Yale in Neville’s case.

Ravitch, Neville and their team mates at Raine have reportedly narrowed the bids for Chelsea down to four groups featuring US private equity or hedge fund billionaires, including Apollo co-founder Josh Harris, Bain Capital co-chairman Stephen Pagliuca and Citadel founder Ken Griffin.

Scramble

This reflects a longstanding interest among US financiers in expanding their stakes in domestic teams to international franchises, especially in football (or soccer), the world's most popular sport.

There was a scramble to mount bids by investors who are based closer to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground, but they failed to make it to the next round of the competition.

One bid was planned by London property developer Nick Candy, with another reported from a combination of Centricus, an asset management and advisory firm, and Jonathan Lourie, the co-founder of hedge fund Cheyne Capital.

The football fans of Mayfair … may well pull off an upset victory at some point if they just keep plugging away at their goal

Centricus and Cheyne have offices round the corner from each other in London’s hedge fund heartland of Mayfair, so there would be an obvious synergy in sharing a limo the three miles southwest to Chelsea’s ground.

Centricus is home to a number of former structuring experts from Deutsche Bank, including co-founders Nizar Al-Bassam and Dalinc Ariburnu, and a more recent transfer in Garth Ritchie, former head of Deutsche’s investment bank before leaving in 2019.

Ritchie is a South African who is more closely associated with rugby, but there is no denying that football is a superior financial proposition, which would explain the reported bid.

Sadly, the US investment bankers at Raine who are handling the Chelsea sale seem to be showing distinct signs of bias towards potential buyers from their own home turf. But London-based bidders should not despair until the metaphorical whistle blows on a transfer of Chelsea to new owners.

Learning process

The sudden collapse of a planned super league of European football teams a year ago highlighted how deals that might make sense financially to franchise owners can be defeated by fan opposition.

Politicians in the UK are keen to seem to be on the side of fans, so there is also a chance of government interference in an agreed bid for Chelsea.

And would-be football tycoons can learn from each contest, whatever the result.

For example, the prospect of Centricus-backed financing for European football association UEFA was widely viewed as one factor in the swift failure of the planned super league that was backed by JPMorgan last year, even if fan outrage was the chief reason for the abandonment of the deal.

The football fans of Mayfair – perhaps with some help from their sovereign wealth fund friends – may well pull off an upset victory at some point if they just keep plugging away at their goal.