I know there is a certain segment of Boston sports fans who want to ignore the most popular sport on earth. The world’s version of football is a foreign delicacy, an unfamiliar flavor of team sports they don’t want on their plate. They prefer the meat and potatoes of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics, and the hardy staples of the four major North American sports leagues.
They’ll mumble about how they’ve been hearing for decades that soccer was the Next Big Thing. Pass out the orange slices and move on.
Except there is a time-worn adage in journalism: Follow the money. The money funding your Boston fan experience is also financing soccer clubs. You can’t ignore that or the beautiful game. If it’s relevant to Boston sports owners, it’s relevant to Boston sports fans.
The Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics could all have prominent sister soccer clubs. Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca is co-fronting a bidding group with Toronto sports magnate Larry Tanenbaum that is among the three finalists for Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League, the most-watched and most-lucrative soccer league in the world. It’s the same league that Liverpool FC, bankrolled by Red Sox owners John Henry (also the owner of the Globe) and Tom Werner, plays in.
“It’s a global sport, and the Premier League is the highest quality. This is a storied franchise. It reminded me of the Celtics, really dedicated fans and fan base,” said Pagliuca. “Larry and I felt really comfortable and were excited about making a bid. We felt we can be good stewards of such a storied club. Hopefully, bring more championships and trophies to their fans. It’s a combination of passion and good business.
“We’re also excited about the potential for Chelsea to impact the community in a positive way outside of the pitch.”
Experts think Chelsea could fetch the highest price ever paid for a professional sports franchise. The sale, necessitated by the United Kingdom’s government freezing the assets of current owner and Certified Friend of Vladimir Putin (CFVP) Roman Abramovich in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is big news across the pond.
The golden ticket to Stamford Bridge, home field of Chelsea, is expected to be handed out as soon as this coming week.
Pagliuca already owns a majority stake in an Italian top-flight team, Serie A club Atalanta. The Kraft family has owned the Revolution since the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996. Their stewardship of the team has not always been popular. But the Krafts spent big to bring in the most successful MLS coach of all time in Bruce Arena and build a $35 million state-of-the-art training facility in Foxborough.
Pagliuca owning Chelsea, reigning club champion of Europe, would be massive. So is the competition.
There’s a bid led by Los Angeles Dodgers part owner Todd Boehly and another fronted by ex-Liverpool chairman and former British Airways executive Martin Broughton. That group includes iconic athletes Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams, and New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer.
All have made their pitch to purchase Chelsea and its pitch.
Rich people can buy whatever they like. However, smart business folks and people with this type of wealth don’t bid on assets they don’t believe have value and will appreciate. The interest in Chelsea alone is an imprimatur of the future of soccer.
It wouldn’t be surprising if in my lifetime soccer surpassed Major League Baseball in popularity. That sounds risible now, but at one time so did professional basketball surpassing boxing or horse racing in the national zeitgeist. Technology keeps making the world smaller and the audience for top-flight soccer larger. The sport is tailor-made for today’s short-attention-span society. There are no commercials or prescribed stoppages in play.
“Some Americans shy away from soccer because of a so-called lack of scoring, but I’m on the edge of my seat because every goal is important. I feel like it’s the last two minutes of a Celtics game the whole game,” said Pagliuca.
Pagliuca, who bought the Celtics along with Wyc Grousbeck in 2002, knows worthy investments. He’s co-chairman of Bain Capital, the Boston-based private investment firm.
His thirst for soccer was actually sparked by his business career. He was stationed in The Hague out of college working for a major accounting firm and there in 1978 when the Netherlands reached the final of the World Cup.
“I became a soccer fan and really gained an appreciation for European soccer,” he said. “The two global sports are basketball and soccer. They’re sports that will have global value and global viewership.”
In its most recent rankings, Forbes ranked Chelsea as the seventh-most-valuable soccer club in the world at $3.2 billion, more valuable than the New York Mets and every NHL team, and as valuable as the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics’ opponents in their first-round playoff series.
The 2022 Football Money League rankings, which knight the 20 richest clubs in the world based on revenue generated, listed Chelsea as eighth, one spot behind Liverpool, with revenues of 493.1 million Euros ($534.165 million).
NBC re-upped with the Premier League last year, agreeing to pay $2.7 billion over six years for the broadcast rights, $450 million per year. That’s up from $183.3 million per year.
A Duke graduate who brought famed Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski as his courtside guest to TD Garden for Game 2 of the Celtics-Nets series, Pagliuca already bleeds blue. Chelsea is an ideal fit.
Full disclosure: Chelsea is my Premier League team. I went to Stamford Bridge in 2009 when the Patriots played the Buccaneers in London and was hooked. The stadium reminded me of Fenway Park, antiquated but quite quaint. The new owners are going to have to figure out Chelsea’s future there, no small feat.
American ownership of EPL clubs was once greeted with rancor, ridicule, and skepticism. Part of that had to do with the ill-fated tenure of the prior owners of Liverpool, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Henry rescued the club in 2010 and returned it to glory.
It’s not novel to have a Yank at the top of the masthead.
Tom Brady’s Buccaneer bosses, the Glazer family, bought Manchester United in 2005.
If Pagliuca’s group or the group led by Boehly wins control it would mean two-thirds of the so-called Big Six — Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal (controlled by Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke), and Tottenham Hotspur — would be fronted by American ownership.
If Pagliuca’s group wins, a third would have Boston-based ownership.
Soccer is a big deal, and it’s a big deal to the owners of the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics. By extension, that means it’s a big deal for Boston sports fans.