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ONE WAY TO PUNISH PUTIN: TAKE OVER AN OLIGARCH’S SOCCER CLUB
Russia’s challenges since invading Ukraine include indignities far and wide, such as the record sale of Chelsea FC to American Todd Boehly, who inherits what Roman Abramovich was forced to relinquish
Delusional as he is dastardly, Vladimir V. Putin is preparing to throw a party. Monday is Victory Day in Russia, where the president will stage his annual military parade as a reminder to his propagandized minions that Soviet forces conquered the Nazis in 1945. It’s his way of rationalizing his brazen attacks on Ukraine, his way of saying war is good, even when he isn’t winning.
Nothing seems to faze Bad Vlad, including reports that he will undergo cancer treatment. All he sees are bombs striking homes and schools, the thousands of fatalities, though the invasion is far more challenging than he anticipated — much like the Russian mood, you might say, before a certain hockey miracle 42 years ago in Lake Placid. As one who always has used athletics to showcase his country’s might and wash its shame, Putin must be especially wounded by a series of recent body blows delivered by the global sports community.
Wimbledon has barred Russian and Belarusian players from competing at the All England Club. In a World Cup year, FIFA disqualified Russia from the proceedings in Qatar, the same ban facing the women’s team next year. If Putin takes solace in seeing his close supporter, Alex Ovechkin, among several Russian players participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he can’t be pleased about the booing of the legendary star in NHL arenas.
Damn straight. With the most robust verbal condemnation possible, sports is united against Putin, who continues to hold Brittney Griner in detention as she awaits a May 19 hearing. The WNBA star has been in a Moscow holding tank for nearly three months, an excessive span even if she foolishly had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport. Griner, who has battled mental health issues since childhood, is Putin’s leverage piece against the White House. She could be locked up for months, longer.
"Brittney has been detained for (81 days) and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said last week in a statement.
President Biden, so far, is helpless.
Leave it to someone named Todd Boehly, then, to beat Bad Vlad with a kick between the legs, so to speak. In a staggering, $4.93 billion takeover that might have made Putin curl into a ball, the American hedge-fund billionaire and former high-school wrestler placed Russia in a headlock unlike any seen in the sports industry. Boehly led a consortium that won bidding for one of soccer’s most prestigious properties, Chelsea of the Premier League, and the deal was possible only because a Putin crony was forced by the British government to sell the club after the Ukraine invasion. For years, Putin took immense pride in the numerous successes of an English club owned by a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
Swooping in with the Stamford Bridge poach was Boehly, who pulled off the biggest sports franchise purchase ever and, next, has his eyes on the NFL’s Denver Broncos. Why stop now, right? At 46, he isn’t satisfied, apparently, to be part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with stakes in the Lakers and WNBA Sparks, along with gambling and esports ventures, not to mention his role atop a media company that has cornered the market on Hollywood-influential news sites. He seems to fancy himself as the next great U.S. sports and media entrepreneur, someone who could take over the Lakers — he and controlling Dodgers owner Mark Walter own a 27-percent stake — if the Buss family tires of being dysfunctional. If you’d never heard of Boehly until recently, grow familiar with his ambition, and the idea of David Spade playing him in the movie.
“We’ve been focused on the big brands. If you talk to people who are knowledgeable about this, they’d tell you there are five great brands in the U.S.: There are the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Raiders, the Cowboys and the Yankees. Our whole goal is to be focused on super big brands,” he told an audience last week at a Beverly Hills business conference. “The Premier League is similar because if you look at the way it works, if you’re one of the big brands you have a structural advantage. For us, we’re always looking for structural advantages.”
The reason the Chelsea faithful might consider investing faith in Boehly, when Premier League fans generally loathe American owners, is his track record with the Dodgers. He and Walter, with the help of Magic Johnson and other partners, reversed the fortunes of a franchise nearly driven into ruin by Frank McCourt. Now the sparkling centerpiece of Major League Baseball, with a projected $426 million total payroll that reflects their prominence and popularity in southern California, the Dodgers have been restored as a “super big brand,’’ by Boehly’s definition. That is, they are proactive about making dynamic deals and massive expenditures to guarantee a superstar-loaded roster in the entertainment capital. Under Abramovich, Chelsea won five Premier League championships, two Champions League titles and 19 major trophies since 2003. The fans will expect the newcomer to spend liberally in the transfer market, starting June 10. And just as he oversaw a Dodger Stadium modernization that was breathtaking — the place is 60 years old — Boehly is tasked with bringing a hallowed but aging stadium in west London into the 21st century.
You might ask why he needs so many toys. Isn’t it enough to win a World Series and NBA championship in the same Bubble-ized 2020? And why would he want the pressure of appeasing Chelsea fans who will target him if he loses? If Manchester City can use the financial clout of the United Arab Emirates royal family, they’ll ask why Boehly can’t turn Chelsea into the Dodgers of Europe. With his baseball club thriving at its organizational peak and the Lakers still under the rule of bumbling governor Jeanie Buss, who has enlisted the advice of 76-year-old former coach Phil Jackson in the search for a head coach, his services aren’t needed in L.A.
“Football’s the biggest sport in the world, the passion the fans have for the sport and the teams is unparalleled,” Boehly told Bloomberg in 2019. “So what you are trying to build with these teams, you are really trying to a) win and b) be part of the community. The opportunity we had with the Dodgers was really about part-ownership with Los Angeles, how are we going to win, how are we going to drive championships and how are we going to build passion. If you look at what the Premier League offers, it’s all of those things.
“One of the great things the Premier League has is, it’s on a Saturday morning in America. So you have an uncongested time slot that is now fully dominated by the Premier League. NBC has done an amazing job bringing that content. When I was growing up, (there was) Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, but certainly I didn’t know about Manchester United, I didn’t know about Chelsea, I didn’t know about Tottenham. Kids these days are fully aware of what’s the best and the Premier League is the best. I continue to believe there is global opportunity for the best clubs.”
He’s not playing Donkey Kong anymore. Rather, Boehly is in an arms race with fellow American investors who now have more influence in Premier League ownership than United Kingdom moguls. Stan Kroenke, owner of the L.A. Rams, has Arsenal. Fenway Sports Group, fronted by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (with a bored LeBron James chipping in), controls a Liverpool power that plays Real Madrid for the UEFA Champions League title on May 28. The Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, controls Manchester United. Wes Edens, co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, has Aston Villa. Then there are those who swung and missed on Chelsea: the Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs; Stephen Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics; and Philadelphia 76ers co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer. At some point, U.S. sports owners who never gave a thought to global soccer realized NBC paid $2.7 billion for a recent package of Saturday games. Plus, it’s cool telling your rich friends at the club that you own a Euroteam a wee bit bigger in scope than Ted Lasso’s bunch.
But not unlike the Dodgers and Lakers, Boehly must win. Or he’ll need an armored car getting to the stadium in Fulham. Just as U.S. fans wouldn’t trust U.K. owners who throw money at NFL purchase prices, English folks view the Premier League as religion. Henry angered Liverpool people when he tried to launch a European Super League. Kroenke is the enemy of the Arsenal base. The Glazers have dealt with death threats. No one cares overseas that the Rams, Bucs and Red Sox win championships on our shores. “Any new owner of Chelsea FC must demonstrate its commitment to protecting supporters and the club’s heritage,’’ wrote the Supporters’ Trust of the 117-year-old franchise, immediately putting Boehly on notice.
So Putin no longer has a rooting interest in two London institutions. Maybe the All England Club isn’t being fair to world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev — who has said he’s “all for peace’’ in speaking out against the war — but it’s an appropriate way of preventing Putin the satisfaction of a Russian player triumphing on Centre Court. Pouted Dmitry Peskov, a Putin operative: “Making athletes hostages of some kind of political prejudices, intrigues, hostile actions towards our country, is unacceptable. Considering that Russia is, after all, a very strong tennis country, our tennis players are in the top lines of the world ranking, the competition itself will suffer from their removal.”
No, Wimbledon is right to embrace the larger perspective: It’s vital to make a statement about the ravages of war, even if some see it as snooty and self-important. The tournament, said club chairman Ian Hewitt, must “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” Though Rafael Nadal (“very unfair”) was joined by Novak Djokovic (“crazy”) in saying Medvedev shouldn’t be punished in an individual sport — and the absence of the 26-year-old could be a factor in what remains a wild race for the most all-time men’s Grand Slam titles — Nadal nailed the point. “At the end of the day,” he said, “what happens in our game, it doesn’t have any importance when we see so many people dying and suffering and seeing the bad situation they are having in Ukraine.”
Bad Vlad also might be miffed by what he could perceive as waffling by his favorite hockey player. “No more war,’’ said Ovechkin, who is chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. Asked if he still backed Putin, he said, “Well, he is my president. But … I am not in politics. I am an athlete, and, you know, how I said, I hope everything is going to be done soon. It’s hard situation right now for both sides and everything, like how I said, everything I hope is going to be end. I’m not in control of this situation.”
At this point, Putin can’t even mastermind a doping conspiracy for his Olympic athletes. The next Games aren’t for two years, in Paris, and by then, who knows about Russia’s place in the world and the condition of Putin’s health? Never has he seemed more vulnerable.
Just ask the high-school wrestler who rose to ankle-pick an oligarch. I’d next suggest a coup of Abramovich’s 553-foot-long superyacht, which cost $700 million to build, but Boehly is busy. He’s trying to buy the Broncos now, and unlike Putin, he isn’t taking Nyet for an answer.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.