The government is taking a hands-off approach to the sale of Chelsea as the Premier League club’s extraordinary auction enters its final few hours.
Despite freezing Roman Abramovich’s assets and only allowing the club to operate within the parameters of a strict licence, the government has indicated that it will not get involved in assessing the merits of any takeover until a preferred bidder has been identified.
US bank the Raine Group is handling the unprecedented sale on behalf of Abramovich and has asked for all interested parties to submit their best bids by Friday evening.
Rival Major League Baseball franchise owners Todd Boehly and the Ricketts family are expected to make offers for Chelsea, as are consortiums fronted by former British Airways chairman Sir Martin Broughton and property developer Nick Candy.
Chelsea must apply for their licence to be amended in order for any sale to take place, but sources say government is not overseeing the sale; that is being left to the Raine Group, who are said to have dubbed the deal Project Caesar.
It means that it is up to the selling party to identify a preferred bidder or bidders and, crucially, to nominate what happens with the funds. Under his sanctioning, Abramovich is not allowed to receive any of the proceeds from the takeover, which could fetch more than £2bn.
Chelsea have been told that once they have plans for a sale to propose to the government, they must apply for any necessary changes to their licence. Only then will ministers evaluate whether it is acceptable.
The government has also said it will not take a view on the backgrounds of any would-be buyers. Instead, that will fall to the Premier League, which must apply its owners’ and directors’ test to vet any individuals involved.
All parties are in uncharted territory, given that an English top-flight team has never been made, effectively, a frozen asset as a result of sanctions against an owner. There is appetite on all sides to achieve a quick sale if possible, however.
Under the terms of their licence Chelsea are not allowed to generate any further income, for example through selling tickets or merchandise. Their main shirt sponsor, telecoms giant Three, has also suspended its £40m-a-year deal with the west London club.
Premier League chiefs said this week that Chelsea would have enough cash to see out the season. They may run into difficulties beyond May, though, which is why there is urgency to transfer ownership swiftly. The club expects any restrictions to be lifted at that point.