Sir Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams, two of the world’s biggest sports stars, are committing millions of pounds to one of the bids vying to become the new owners of Chelsea Football Club.
Sky News can exclusively reveal the full line-up of investors backing the takeover offer for Chelsea spearheaded by Sir Martin Broughton, the former Liverpool FC and British Airways chairman – the most prominent of whom are the seven-times Formula One world champion and the former women’s world tennis number one.
Sources close to the group said that Sir Lewis and Ms Williams – the highest-profile members of any of the three remaining consortia – had pledged millions of pounds, although a spokesman for the F1 driver said the suggestion that he would invest £10m was "not accurate".
Both Sir Lewis, who will compete for his Mercedes team at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola this weekend, and Ms Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slams including seven Wimbledon titles, have become established investors in their own right in recent years.
Serena Ventures, the tennis star’s venture capital fund, this week announced an investment in Opensponsorship, a British-based sports technology start-up, while Sir Lewis has backed a range of early-stage companies such as Zapp, the London-based rapid grocery delivery app.
Their involvement in the Chelsea auction is unexpected – not least because Sir Lewis is an Arsenal fan.
Sir Lewis and Ms Williams have, however, been in talks with the group spearheaded by Sir Martin for several weeks.
It was unclear on Thursday morning which corporate entities would be used by the pair to invest in the Blues.
The consortium is uniquely British-led among the trio of shortlisted bidders and features another UK sporting icon in the form of Lord Coe among its backers.
A source close to the group said the addition of Sir Lewis and Ms Williams was a serious investment decision because of their experience at building global sports brands.
They also pointed out that the involvement of the pair was not the first time famous athletes had backed a Premier League club: LeBron James, the basketball legend, has been a small shareholder in Liverpool for more than a decade.
Under the consortium’s plans, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), the holding company headed by American private equity billionaires Josh Harris and Dave Blitzer, would hold a controlling stake in Chelsea – although they will need to divest their minority shareholding in Crystal Palace prior to completing a deal.
Their involvement with the ownership and running of Crystal Palace since 2015 is also a distinctive factor among the remaining bidders for Chelsea.
The Broughton-led group’s other investors include: Canada’s Rogers family, which holds a big interest in the media and telecoms company Rogers Communications; John Arnold, who chaired the Houston 2026 FIFA World Cup bid committee; and Taiwan’s Tsai family, which owns the Taipei Fubon Braves and Fubon Guardians baseball teams.
As Sky News reported on Monday, Alejandro Santo Domingo, an heir to one of the world’s biggest brewing fortunes and an investor in several North American sports franchises, is also investing in the bid.
Sources close to the offer led by Sir Martin said the diversity of its roster of global investors was among the factors that had persuaded Sir Lewis and Ms Williams to become involved.
One insider suggested that Sir Lewis was likely to play a formal role in Chelsea’s future efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion if the bid is successful.
He and Ms Williams have been advocates in their respective sports and beyond in promoting equality, lending their names to numerous anti-discrimination initiatives.
That issue was thrown into sharp focus earlier in the Chelsea sale process when one of the bidders – a consortium headed by the Chicago Cubs-owning Ricketts family – was forced to distance itself from historical Islamophobic remarks.
Sir Martin’s consortium is said to believe that it is best-placed of the remaining consortia to navigate the complexities of owning Chelsea, including the prospective redevelopment of its Stamford Bridge home.
The other bidders for Chelsea, including the one led by billionaires Steve Pagliuca and Larry Tanenbaum, also have significant real estate expertise, however, setting up a closely fought tussle to succeed Roman Abramovich as Chelsea’s owner after nearly two decades.
The third remaining bidder is fronted by Todd Boehly, part-owner of the LA Dodgers, but which would see US investor Clearlake Capital be by fair its biggest individual shareholder.
HBSE’s extensive holdings of major teams allied to investments in sports science and technology-related assets aimed at building fan engagement have made it one of the most prolific owners of sports assets in the US.
It also has a large real estate operation, which is likely to position it well in the battle for a Premier League club whose stadium is significantly smaller than its rivals.
The group’s founders have invested in more than half a dozen football clubs, including Real Salt Lake of the US’s MLS competition.
It also owns the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team.
The consortium is also understood to be planning to retain Bruce Buck, Chelsea’s chairman, and director Marina Granovskaia in senior roles at the club, according to an insider.
Under its plans, it would make an immediate – though undisclosed – investment in Chelsea’s squad, playing facilities, women’s set-up and academy.
All three final bidders have been told to provide legal undertakings that they will guarantee at least £1bn of investment in the club’s infrastructure, its academy and women’s team if they buy it.
Raine Group, which is overseeing the sale process, is expected to select a preferred bidder by the end of the month, once all of the parties have undergone scrutiny as part of the Premier League’s owners and directors’ test.
Sir Martin’s bid is being advised by Michael Klein, an investment banker who worked with him when he was parachuted in as chairman of Liverpool FC in 2010.
It has support from Creative Artists Agency, the global talent management agency, and Evolution Media Capital, a sports advisory and financing partnership.
The deadline for final offers for Chelsea arrived a week ago, although prominent names have continued to emerge in connection to it in the subsequent days.
Sky News revealed at the weekend that George Osborne, the former chancellor, had been parachuted in to help Mr Boehly’s bid as the auction of Chelsea – arguably the most politically charged sports deal in British history – enters its final stages.
Mr Abramovich’s sanctioning by the government and disqualification by the Premier League as a director of the club he has owned since 2003 has left the Stamford Bridge outfit’s fate in the hands of ministers.
Raine will be responsible for recommending a preferred bidder to the government in order to secure a special licence approving the sale.
The True Blues Consortium – a Chelsea supporters’ group which counts former Blues captain John Terry among its founders – has thrown its weight behind Mr Pagliuca’s bid.
More than 10,000 Chelsea fans have expressed an interest in owning shares worth more than £150m as part of the deal that will see Mr Abramovich replaced as the club’s owner.
Final bids were expected to value Chelsea at more than £2.5bn – which would break the record for a sports club takeover.
If selected in time, a preferred bidder will have an FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Liverpool to look forward to, although an at times lacklustre season in the Premier League and last week’s elimination from the Champions League have raised the prospect of a trophyless campaign at Stamford Bridge.
The sale process has been complicated by the sanctions against Mr Abramovich, but has not inhibited interest from a multitude of billionaires who either control or own stakes in a legion of North American teams spanning baseball, basketball and ice hockey.
The cluster of bidders underlines the extent to which the English Premier League has become a magnet for financiers from across the Atlantic during the past 20 years.
Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United have all been acquired by US-based businessmen during that period, and a significant number of other top-flight clubs also have American backing.
Last season’s Champions League-winners have been thrown into disarray by Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Mr Abramovich initially proposing to place the club in the care of its foundation and then formally putting it up for sale.
He initially slapped a £3bn price tag on the Stamford Bridge outfit, with the net proceeds being donated to a charitable foundation set up to benefit the victims of the war in Ukraine.
Spokesmen for Sir Martin’s consortium and for HBSE declined to comment on Thursday.
© Sky News 2022