Chelsea owner Todd Boehly’s blunders grab headlines, but his message and vision are solid, if lacking in imagination

Just over 100 days into his tenure in charge of Chelsea and we’ve heard far more from Todd Boehly than from Roman Abramovich in almost two decades. From a fan’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter in the long run. As long as the club is seen as well-run and successful, most can get by without communication from the owner, which is why Abramovich was loved by most Chelsea supporters while Manchester United’s silent owners Glazers are hated by most United fans.

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The problem with Boehly, who leads the investment consortium that acquired Chelsea for around $3 billion this summer, is that the club is not doing well. To the natural angst of a new owner after 20 years of stability and success, you add the sacking of manager Thomas Tuchel – especially after the massive summer investment – ​​and a turgid start to the campaign and naturally, every word will be scrutinized.

So when Boehly sat down for a half-hour conversation in New York on Tuesday at SALT, a global forum for thought leadership and networking, the world was watching.

Inevitably, some will focus on blunders, malaprops, and general Boehly things that will rub seasoned fans the wrong way. I would be remiss if I did not chronicle them although in the larger scheme of things they are nowhere near as relevant as the main takeaways. Which, to me, is just that Boehly’s band doesn’t offer anything new.

But let’s get the faux pas out of the way first, because that’s undoubtedly what you read in the headlines.

Boehly said each Premier League club receives “more than a few hundred million” (he didn’t specify pounds or dollars) a year, which isn’t entirely true. Last season, top earner Manchester City received £164m ($190m) and bottom club Norwich City received £98.6m ($113.8m).

When he compiled a list of players who came through Chelsea’s youth system, he included Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. Indeed, they were signed at 21 and 22 respectively from Genk and Basel. While they weren’t particularly expensive and were young, both were internationals (for Belgium and Egypt) who had previously played Champions League football.

He also managed to butcher the name of Barcelona’s academy – making ‘La Masia’ sound like ‘The Messiah’ – suggesting that after a summer of talking to Barca about Frenkie de Jong, Marcos Alonso and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he hasn’t quite understood how the Catalans pronounce it, and no one around him has the confidence to correct him.

OK, get your sarcastic laughs 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 he’s only been in this space for a few months, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The substance doesn’t change if Salah came through Cobham or Cairo academy, and it doesn’t matter what Boehly calls Barcelona youth.

As for being over 100% on what clubs actually earn from broadcasting, let’s chalk it up to a misunderstanding, and besides, maybe he’s more of a big-picture guy. Moreover, it doesn’t affect his larger – and more interesting – point that relegation in European football, which sets it apart from American sports, prevents “tanking”, the practice of clubs having nothing to play for. play a series of meaningless matches. Games. (In case you were wondering, he didn’t go so far as to suggest that maybe promotion-relegation should be introduced in baseball, where he co-owns the LA Dodgers.)

In my opinion, the most relevant takeaways have to do with his sense of what innovation and best practice mean for the Premier League and for Chelsea.

First of all, when you start a sentence saying you ‘hope the Premier League learns a lesson from American sport’, it’s unlikely anything good will come of it. The implication, whether that’s what he meant or not, is that American sport is better at monetizing fan experiences, and European football has something to gain from that.

Considering that from the start the Premier League has been partly modeled on American sport – where do you think they got the idea from in 1992 of giving players individual numbers and having their names on the back of the jerseys? — and more importantly, that American owners have been in it for 15 years (and they’re often also owners of successful American sports franchises), that’s not pretty. This not only implies that you want to borrow aspects of the American sport (which is a tricky subject to begin with), but it also suggests that these things didn’t occur to your fellow American owners or, indeed, to other owners who may have attended a baseball game. or a football game across the pond.

The majority of the media focused on his first proposal, a ‘North vs South’ Premier League All-Star Game. Without going into scheduling details, if clubs can force players to play — there’s no collective bargaining agreement in the Premier League — how that might work with Midlands teams or whether anyone would actually appreciate this kind of suggestion, or its variants, is not new. Heck, in 1891 an All-Star team of top-flight English League players took on their Scottish League colleagues, a tradition that continued until the mid-1970s.

– Liverpool’s Klopp mocks Boehly’s All-Star Game pitch

Specifically, given how American sports fans have reacted to All-Star games (the NFL’s version has seen a decline in viewership since 2011, the NBA’s was the lowest since at least 2007, and at least baseball – Boehly’s wheelhouse – viewership was at an all-time high and a fifth of what it was in 1980) perhaps the lesson from American sports is that fans don’t want that. Why? Because they like to see competitive games, not exhibitions.

His other proposal – a relegation playoff – is actually a good idea, if you have the right format. (The biggest concern is fairness, when one team is well ahead of the other in points.) But again, that’s not something they need to learn from American sports. Relegation playoffs have existed in other European leagues (like the German Bundesliga) for some time, 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 way to share know-how, develop Academy stars and, as he puts it, “build 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 (mainly American) investors are doing it. It’s basically a vision of the agricultural system of baseball.

It’s the kind of idea that makes a lot of sense on paper, but how much it helps the “parent club” remains to be seen. City Football Group have been around since 2013, but on the one hand you can count on the number of former youth partners who have already adapted for Manchester City in the Premier League, not to mention having had a lot of impact.

The impression is that making such a setup work, given the cultural differences and local biases in the game, is actually very difficult. Which, by the way, may explain why governing bodies like UEFA and FIFA didn’t seriously crack him down or why other top European clubs (other than City) didn’t pursue him: in ultimately, it’s not clear that this gives you an edge.

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Craig Burley is tearing up Chelsea owner Todd Boehly’s idea of ​​a Premier League All-Star Game.

Boehly also spoke of treating a club’s youngsters as “academy products” rather than “academy players”. Again, some will find this a bit dehumanizing and slightly scary – we’re talking about monetizing teens here, not senior pros – but give it the benefit of the doubt here. The most salient point is that anyone who has followed Chelsea over the past decade will know that the club have done it before 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 starting players developed in the Chelsea system.

Asked about the European Super League, he said it was not something Chelsea were chasing as the Champions League already had “many components”. When asked if it was a “hard no”, Boehly said, “I never give a hard no. I like to keep my options open.” Some will blame him for that, but I have no problem with that. It’s best for Boehly to be honest: he can’t predict the future, and there may come a time when fan sentiment changes.

There wasn’t much visionary or revolutionary about his speech, but it didn’t have to be. The mere fact that he speaks is important, no matter his mistakes and questionable ideas, whether because they are crazy or simply because they are not new (even if he may think they are). ).

Boehly already seems to have grasped two of the most important things that club owners too often overlook. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Glazers). The first is that it’s fine to be silent if things are going well, but you have to send a message in times of trouble, and that message has to be genuine. Boehly struck me as authentic.

The other is something Boehly himself said: “At the end of the day, you have to deliver a product that people want and enjoy.” It seems obvious and it might take him a while to figure out the best way to do it, but it’s the minimum standard for being a good owner, and not everyone meets it.

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