The Chelsea F.C. sale process was turned on its head last week when the U.K. government froze the assets of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. A special license was granted for the club to continue operating, but it prohibits the sale of the team.
Chelsea will be sold—the government will consider issuing a new license to allow a sale and has told The Raine Group, which was hired to sell the team, it can move forward with the process. Initial offers are due Friday. When the sale goes through, the next owner will need to tackle the future of its iconic home, Stamford Bridge.
The incoming owner can look due north for guidance on replacing a century-old football stadium within heavily developed London, as fellow Big Six clubs Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur both opened new venues this century. Chelsea’s owners will likely need to commit another $2 billion to $3 billion to build a modern stadium, on top of the multibillion-dollar price for the team.
The Blues already have one advantage. “Chelsea is arguably one of the greatest locations for a football stadium anywhere in Europe,” Christopher Lee, managing director at architecture firm Populous, said in a phone interview. Lee knows his stadiums, having designed dozens of construction projects around the globe, including the Arsenal and Tottenham facilities and a future home for Inter and AC Milan, The Cathedral on the San Siro grounds.
The nonprofit fan group, Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO), owns the Stamford Bridge real estate and leases it to the team under a 199-year lease. The CPO also holds the hammer if a new owner tried to move the club from the area, as it owns the rights to the Chelsea F.C. name and could bar the team from using it.
“[The CPO] does not support the concept of Chelsea F.C. playing at an alternative venue,” Chris Isitt, CPO director, said in an email. “Views on the stadium itself will vary from those who never want to see it change at one end of the spectrum, to those who believe the best team in London needs the best stadium in London at the other.”
The CPO won’t let Chelsea move, but it is open to a new venue on the current site. It collaborated with Abramovich on design plans for a £1 billion redevelopment of the stadium in 2017. The stadium received planning permission, but Abramovich cited an “unfavorable investment climate” when he abandoned the plans the following year. The U-turn coincided with the U.K. not renewing Abramovich’s visa. The permission on the proposal expired last year.
The benefits of a new building are vast. Stamford Bridge is the smallest of the Premier League’s Big Six clubs by a wide margin with only 41,800 seats. Manchester United’s Old Trafford is the biggest with more than 75,000. Lee calls just over 60,000 seats the “sweet spot” for Premier League teams with a limited build footprint to work within a crowded area like London.
Stamford Bridge opened in 1887 and is in a built-up area of west London, surrounded by busy roads, rail lines and homes. Arsenal faced similar logistical challenges when it opened Emirates Stadium in 2006, as its new building sits in a densely inhabited Victorian suburb in a narrow triangle between two main rail routes.
Arsenal faced the inevitable pushback that comes with leaving behind an iconic venue steeped in history, akin to when the Yankees opened “new” Yankee Stadium in 2009. Longtime Arsenal manager Arsene Wagner said after the 2006 move, “We left our soul at Highbury.” But replacing a 93-year-old, 38,000-seat venue with a modern one transformed the finances of the Gunners.
The club’s matchday revenue increased 150% to more than $120 million a year. While commercial revenue got a significant boost with the new sponsorship opportunities throughout the building in brand activations, on top of the stadium naming rights deal with Dubai-based Emirates, which also is the jersey sponsor. Chelsea explored a venue naming rights deal when Abramovich received permission for the redevelopment and planned to keep Stamford Bridge as part of the name, similar to the Denver Broncos Empower Field at Mile High.
Tottenham opened its $1.3 billion venue in 2019, and it propelled the club’s matchday revenue near the top of the Premier League. Per capita spending on concessions and merchandise increased 500% in the new building, according to Lee. He says they offered 19 different price points on ticketing. “It is important to think about the whole range of different experiences within the facility from general admission all the way through to five-star dining,” Lee said.
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was also built with an eye towards non-soccer events. In the fall of 2021, it hosted the Premier League, NFL and a boxing match over a two-week stretch. The NFL committed to a minimum of two games a year at the site for 10 years.
Over the last 15 years, American sports team owners have focused on expanding the customer experience beyond just the allotted time when the games are occurring. They want fans spending money before and after the contest, and ideally on non-gamedays as well, with other offerings outside the venue. European owners have been slower to embrace this, content to leave the business to local pubs and retailers, but they are starting to take notice.
“In a location like Chelsea, the bars and restaurants could definitely work seven days a week outside of the football environment,” Lee said, with huge opportunities in conferencing, banquets and exhibitions at a new facility.
Team owners are increasingly thinking about sustainability in their new stadium projects and also how to incorporate virtual or remote audiences, according to Lee. Roughly 800,000 fans annually visit Stamford Bridge for Premier League games, but the club has hundreds of millions of fans around the world. Manchester City is working with Sony to digitally map Etihad Stadium for virtual reconstruction to help bring game action to the virtual world in real time.
The Chelsea sale process is happening under an accelerated timeline, and the next person in charge will almost certainly focus on the football side of things before launching a new stadium project, which takes five or six years to complete in a best-case scenario. Yet, a redeveloped venue is a necessity if the Blues want to keep up with their rivals across Europe, and the CPO will have its say.
“At the end of the day, the new owner(s) will determine the stadium’s future,” said Isitt, “And the CPO will be on hand if shareholders are required to vote on matters within its jurisdiction.”