Just over 100 days into his tenure at the helm of Chelsea and we’ve heard far more from Todd Boehly than we did from Roman Abramovich in nearly two decades. From a fan’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter in the long-term. As long as the club is seen to be well-run and successful, most can do without communication from the owner, which is why Abramovich was loved by most Chelsea supporters while Manchester United’s silent owners, the Glazers, are loathed by most United fans.
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The issue with Boehly, who leads the investment consortium that acquired Chelsea for around $3 billion in the summer, is that the club isn’t doing well. To the natural angst of a new owner after 20 years of stability and success, you throw in the sacking of manager Thomas Tuchel — especially after the summer’s massive investment — and a turgid start to the campaign and naturally, every word will be scrutinized .
So when Boehly sat down on Tuesday for a half-hour chat in New York at the SALT Conference, a global thought leadership and networking forum, the world was watching.
Inevitably, some will focus on Boehly’s blunders, malaprops and general things that will rub seasoned fans the wrong way. I’d be remiss not to chronicle them though in the larger scheme of things, they’re nowhere near as relevant as to the main takeaway. Which, to me, is simply that Boehly’s group isn’t offering anything new.
But let’s get the missteps out of the way first, because that’s undoubtedly what you’re reading in the headlines.
Boehly said that every club in the Premier League gets “north of a few hundred million” (he didn’t specify pounds or dollars) per year, which isn’t quite true. Last season, the highest earner, Manchester City, received £164m ($190m) and the bottom club, Norwich City, got £98.6m ($113.8m).
When rattling off a list of players who came through Chelsea’s youth system, he included Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. In fact, they were signed at 21 and 22 years old respectively from Genk and Basel. While they weren’t particularly expensive and were young, both were internationals (for Belgium and Egypt) who had already played Champions League football.
He also managed to butcher the name of Barcelona’s academy — somehow making “La Masia” sound like “La Messiah” — which suggests that after a summer of talking to Barca regarding Frenkie de Jong, Marcos Alonso and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he didn’t quite pick up on how the Catalans pronounce it, and nobody around him has the confidence to correct him.
OK, get your snarky giggles out of your system. It’s true that most people immersed in the sport — whether fans, coaches or executives — wouldn’t make such mistakes, but then he’s only been in this space a few months, and frankly, they don’t really matter. The substance doesn’t change whether Salah came through the academy at Cobham or Cairo, and it doesn’t matter what Boehly calls Barcelona’s youth set-up.
Nor for being off by more than 100% on what clubs actually earn from broadcasting, let’s chalk it up to misspeak, and besides, maybe he’s more of a big picture guy. Plus, it doesn’t affect his broader — and more interesting — point that relegation in European football, which distinguishes it from US sports, prevents “tanking,” the practice of clubs with nothing to play for playing out a string of meaningless games. (In case you’re wondering, he didn’t go so far as to suggest that maybe promotion-relegation should be introduced in baseball, where he’s part-owner of the LA Dodgers.)
As I see it, the most relevant takeaways have to do with his sense of what innovation and best practice means for the Premier League and for Chelsea.
First off, when you start a sentence by saying you are “hoping that the Premier League takes a bit of a lesson from American sports,” the odds are nothing good will come of it. The implication, whether it’s what he meant to say or not, is that American sports are better at monetizing fan experiences, and European football has something to learn from it.
Considering that from the start, the Premier League has been partly modeled on US sports — where do you think they got the idea, in 1992, of giving players individual numbers and having their names on the back of shirts? — and more importantly, that US owners have been a part of it for the past 15 years (and they’re often owners of successful US sports franchises, too), it’s not a great look. It not only implies you want to borrow aspects of US sports (which is a touchy subject to begin with), but it also suggests these things didn’t occur to your fellow US owners or, indeed, other owners who might have attended a baseball or football game across the pond.
The majority of media outlets focused on his first proposal, a “North vs. South” Premier League All-Star game. Without getting into the minutiae of scheduling, whether clubs can compel players to play — there’s no collective bargaining agreement in the Premier League — how it might work with teams in the Midlands or whether anyone would actually enjoy this, this sort of suggestion, or variants thereof, isn’t new. Heck, way back in 1891, an All-Star team of top-flight players from the English League faced off against their colleagues in the Scottish League, a tradition that continued into the mid-1970s.
– Liverpool’s Klopp mocks Boehly’s All-Star Game pitch
More to the point, given how American sports fans have been responding to All-Star games (the NFL’s version has seen viewership decline since 2011, the NBA’s was the lowest since at least 2007 and, in baseball — Boehly’s wheelhouse — viewership was at a record low and one-fifth of what it was in 1980) maybe the lesson to learn from American sports is that fans don’t want this. Why? Because they like to see competitive games, not exhibitions.
His other proposal — a relegation playoff — is actually a good idea, if you get the format right. (The biggest concern is fairness, when one team is well ahead of the other in terms of points.) But again, it’s not something they need to learn from American sports. Relegation playoffs have been around other European leagues (like the German Bundesliga) for a while, in different divisions and with different formats.
His admiration for the “multi-club model” (like the Red Bull group or City Football Group) as a means of sharing know-how, developing Academy stars and, as he puts it, “building out the footprint,” was interesting though obviously nothing new. From David Blitzer to Bob Platek, to the folks at RedBird and the 777 Group, a host of other (mostly American) investors are doing this. It’s basically a vision of baseball’s farm system.
It’s the sort of idea that makes a ton of sense on paper, although to what degree it helps the “parent club” remains to be seen. City Football Group has been around since 2013, but you can count on one hand the number of junior partner alumni who have ever suited up for Manchester City in the Premier League, let alone had much of an impact.
The impression is that making such a set-up work, given the cultural differences and local biases in the game, is actually very difficult. Which, by the way, may explain why governing bodies such as UEFA and FIFA haven’t seriously cracked down on it or why other top clubs around Europe (other than City) haven’t pursued it: Ultimately, it’s not clear that it gives you an advantage.
Craig Burley tears into Chelsea owner Todd Boehly’s idea of a Premier League All-Star match.
Boehly also talked about treating a club’s youngsters as “Academy products” rather than “Academy players.” Again, some will find that a bit dehumanizing and slightly creepy — we’re talking about monetizing teenagers here, not senior pros — but give him the benefit of the doubt here. The more salient point is that anyone who has followed Chelsea over the past decade will know that the club have actually already been doing that and, in some cases, been criticized for it: from Marc Guehi to Nathan Ake, from Patrick Bamford to Fikayo Tomori , and even Tammy Abraham and Ola Aina, Chelsea have raked in some £175m since 2015 in fees for departing players developed in the Chelsea system.
When asked about the European Super League, he said it wasn’t something Chelsea were pursuing since the Champions League already has “many components of it.” When pressed about whether this was a “hard no,” Boehly said: “I never give hard nos. I like to keep my options open.” Some will criticize him for it, but I have no problem with it. It’s much better that Boehly be honest: He can’t predict the future, and there may come a time when fan sentiment changes.
There wasn’t much that was visionary or ground-breaking in his talk, but there didn’t need to be. The mere fact that he’s talking is important, no matter his slip-ups and questionable ideas, whether because they’re goofy or simply because they’re not new (even though he may think they are).
Boehly already seems to have grasped two of the most important things that club owners ignore all too often. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Glazers). The first is that it’s fine to stay silent if everything is rosy, but you have to send a message in times of turmoil, and that message has to be genuine. Boehly appeared genuine to me.
The other lies in something Boehly himself said: “In the end, you have to deliver a product that people want and value.” It sounds obvious and it may take him a while to figure it out how best to do that, but it’s the minimum standard for being a good owner, and not everyone meets it.