Should the Ricketts family’s proposed acquisition of the English soccer club Chelsea FC go through (ciblical losses? What biblical losses?), they will be in some interesting company. One English Premier League team is owned by a sovereign wealth fund linked (oh, sorry, not linked in any way, shape, or form) to a government that just executed 81 men in a single day. Another is owned by a group with links to a government that considers homosexuality to be, in some cases, a capital offense. Seen in this light, Cubs mascot Clark the Cub looks like a mere misdemeanor.
The Ricketts clan would become the second MLB owner also to own a Premier League Club. The first was that other curse-breaker, John Henry, who owns both the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC. His experience shows what might happen should the Ricketts acquisition succeed, as well as what probably won’t.
While Billy Beane might have pioneered the use of statistical analysis to gain a competitive edge, Henry refined it. In Theo Epstein, he identified a remarkably effective executive to implement that vision. Henry brought the same statistical focus to Liverpool after he purchased the club in 2010. The result has been an extended run of successful and exciting soccer, made possible in part by a large player payroll, but also by an organization that understands and applies statistical analysis throughout its operations.
None of this seems to have harmed the Sawx, who have won two world championships since Henry purchased the Liverpool club. And while the specific statistics in baseball and soccer have hardly anything in common, the methods of communicating statistical information throughout an organization, and the characteristics and backgrounds of personnel who can do these things well, may have some similarities. It would not be surprising if Henry, who is hands on in a mostly beneficial way, has cross-pollinated these ideas across his two clubs to at least some extent.
A grimmer example of American ownership is visible just 30 or so miles away from Liverpool in Manchester, where the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also own Manchester United. This once fabled franchise has become sort of an inverted Ted Lasso, in which a series of highly experienced managers (well, mostly) coach a collection of star players into one slapstick fiasco after another, while the Glazers vacuum cash from the business. It’s not that the Glazers have skimped on payroll – this is not the Merseyside Pittsburgh Pirates – but their overwhelming focus on self-enrichment has left the club rudderless. That said, Man U’s turbulence does not seem to have adversely affected Tampa Bay, who, you might have heard, had some recent success.
So if the Ricketts family succeeds in purchasing Chelsea, it is likely that the Cubs (and Cubs fans) will see little immediate change. The Premier League is much more embedded with the gambling industry than MLB has been to this point; it is possible the Ricketts family will learn how to accelerate their nascent efforts to harvest additional gambling-related revenue from the Chicago Cubs. And Premier League players have been wearing ads for years; maybe the Cubs can pick up some tips there as well.
Cubs: Will the Ricketts family walk through the valley of the shadow of debt?
The biggest threat to the Cubs would be if the Chelsea purchase results in an ocean of red ink. The Chelsea club carries a heavy debt load: it owes it’s soon-to-be-former Russian oligarch owner approximately $2 billion-with-a-b. The said oligarch, Roman Abramovich, had no interest in making money from the club, leading it to carry a payroll that no future owner is likely to sustain. But untangling all this will take time and somewhere between one and seven tons of money. The two clubs are separate corporate entities, but if the Chelsea cash hemorrhage is closer to the seven ton end of the spectrum, one can imagine the Ricketts clan getting even more cautious than they are now about spending on the Cubs.
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However, it’s the fans residing in our former colonial master who will feel the iciest forebodings from a Ricketts purchase, because one of the best ways to maximize revenue from the big English soccer teams is to Americanize the Premier League structure. John Henry and the Glazers stepped on a mighty big rake when they supported just such an effort in 2020, but many believe it is simply a matter of time before they try again. And they would surely be able to count on the Ricketts family as active and enthusiastic allies.