Say what you like about Todd Pohley, he knows how to get people’s attention.
He first bought Chelsea from Roman Abramovich in the biggest buyout ever in football. He then appoints himself interim sporting director and presides over Chelsea’s biggest transfer window ever, spending £278m on new signings.
Then, after losing three of his first seven games, he sacked his Champions League-winning coach, Thomas Tuchel, one week after the transfer window closed.
But doing nothing as the owner of Chelsea has drawn him more criticism than noting that the annual baseball All-Star game brings in $200 million, so perhaps the Premier League should consider having its own All Star game.
Buhli has been heavily criticized by a string of big footballing names including Jurgen Klopp (“Will he bring the Harlem Globetrotters too?”), Thierry Henry (“This is Europe, it doesn’t work that way”), Jamie Carragher (“I think it incredibly arrogant”), and Gary Neville (“American investment in English football presents a clear and present risk to the game’s hierarchy and fabric”).
It is clear that Poh has not helped himself by naming Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne as alumni at Chelsea’s academy. In the days following his dismissal of Tuchel, the story was that at one of Tuchel’s meetings with Boehle, the owner referred to the “4-4-3” formation. . . Chelsea insisted the story was untrue, but it sounded honest enough to enjoy wide circulation.
Bohli knows little about honesty. His claim that All Star baseball made $200 million proved difficult to prove. Perhaps it should be offered alongside his unofficial assertion in the same interview that each Premier League team generates “a few hundred million” in television revenue – when actual amounts last year ranged from millions to £160m depending on the league standings. .
But Buhli’s fault wasn’t mistaking some details. He was suggesting that English football could take a “lesson” from American sports. This made him guilty of the crime (serious in England) of not knowing where he was.
It’s not that the Premier League never takes lessons from American sports. The league is essentially a version of the National Football League, and was largely inspired by the NFL fanatic of three English football club managers: Irving Scholar of Tottenham, David Dean of Arsenal and Martin Edwards of Man United.
Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s 2018 book, The Club, tells of how Dean used to go to the Miami Dolphins, where he saw proper stadium toilets for the first time and realized that another world was possible.
Ultimately, Dein, Edwards and Scholar benefit because the changes they have been forced into by making English clubs attractive to wealthy international investors. Top-level English football is now owned and operated by foreigners, but appearances are everything in what a growing number of English pundits are now calling ‘Our League’.
It’s fine for Americans to own English football, but they don’t have to talk like they own the place.
Buhli’s suggestions were an insult to tidying up, not unlike Philip Schofield jumping in the queue to pay his respects to the Queen. Yes, Schofield’s employers, ITV, have debunked the claim that he skipped the queue – but like 4-4-3, it’s true.
Schofield’s alleged behavior contrasted with the decency displayed by David Beckham, who was notorious for standing in line like everyone else. Another thing Beckham did to make the news recently was sign a £150m deal to promote Qatar, but 12 hours in the queue brought his credentials back as a man of the people. Beckham never needed anyone to explain to him the importance of appearances.
Having watched Boehly’s somber voice about All Star Games being sarcastically hailed, it will be interesting to see the reaction as he reveals his true thoughts, which would have nothing to do with the show’s shadowy matches and everything to do with multimedia rights deals over the years.
If Buhli’s career could be summed up in a formula, it would be: He bet big on certain things. In 2012, when his consortium bought the L.A. Dodgers for a then-world record $1.575 billion, many thought he had overpaid. On Boehly’s account, these people didn’t realize how much they underestimated the Dodgers’ TV rights.
The team bought it just as their old TV rights deals were about to expire and they were preparing to negotiate a new one. The rights were generally expected to fetch about $3.5 billion — but the eventual deal with Time Warner Cable was for $7 billion — and since then, Bohley and his partners have been laughing.
Why did Boehly pay Chelsea £2.5 billion, plus another £1.75 billion in add-ons? That’s because, like the Dodgers, he thinks it’s cheap.
What intrigues him about Chelsea is that large international fan base of them, just waiting to get monetized right. Like the people who run Manchester United for the Glazers, Boehly often talks about “turning fans into subscribers” and his dream is to have a global audience of Chelsea fans connected to the club via a mobile app, paying to sign up at Chelsea because they’ll sign up for Netflix.
Currently, a lot of Chelsea fans subscribe to TV companies like Sky, BT Sports, etc. These brokers will need to keep increasing their rights offerings if owners like Bohli are to get a return on investment. If they don’t, Bohle will not hesitate to look for a solution that works best for Chelsea, even if it does not work for smaller teams. For baseball owners who are used to negotiating auctions for their media rights, the Premier League’s collegiate system must feel like a tyranny.
But even if none of that works out, Boehly still has one big reason to be optimistic. In the age of quantitative easing — an era that seems to be over and may be about to reverse — investors are used to the idea that only certain types of assets can go up.
When asked on the Sportico podcast in November 2021 what he saw as the biggest threat to the ever-increasing ratings of teams like the Dodgers, he admitted he couldn’t see one.
“[Major sports franchises] It will continue to rise in value, as more dollars enter the system, there will be an expansion in value,” he said.
“There aren’t many of them, they don’t make more of them – there may be a few of them, but they don’t make a lot. We add more and more liquidity to the system, and that will continue to expand values. All markets are like that. [gestures up and down]. But in the end, if the money supply continues to grow, and the asset itself is finite, it is hard to see that it does anything other than rise in value.”
These are the money markets in which Todd Boehle made his billions: even when you lose, you win.