The American basketball star detained in Russia

Good morning from Magic Johnson‘s world, the rest of us are just living in it. The retired basketball legend is the subject of not one but two current prestige streaming programmes (a traditional docuseries on Apple+ and an HBO drama on the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, the perfect dramedy if you love Adam McKay and hate Boston). He’s already a co-owner of three Los Angeles pro teams: baseball’s Dodgers, basketball’s Sparks, and football’s LAFC, and this week he is joining a bid for American football’s Denver Broncos.

The real news is that he is joining a bid led by private equity tycoons Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and not that of Johnson’s current partner at the Dodgers, Todd Boehly (you may recall these individuals as finalists and winning bidder, respectively, for Chelsea FC). A source close to the American football bidding process tells me that, should they win, the Johnson and Harris partnership would emphasise “diversity, equity and inclusion and social justice” in their stewardship of the Broncos. It’s no secret the National Football League has never had a black owner and currently has a messy lawsuit on its hands alleging racist hiring practices among coaches; not only is Johnson a black leader but he adds compelling gravitas as both a sportsman and a manager.

In the meantime, a group led by US financier Boehly has agreed a £4.25bn deal to acquire Chelsea, capping weeks of intrigue. For now, we have insight on just what happened with that last-minute bid by Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos, and a troubling status update on the detention of US basketball star Brittney Griner in Russia. Do read on — Sara Germano, US sports business correspondent.

The financial fiasco behind Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia

USA to Russia: Free Brittney Griner © Brian Snyder/Reuters

More than two months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, the US government on Tuesday said it has determined basketball star Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained” by Russia.

The declaration by the US state department elevates the case of the double Olympic champion from a legal matter to a diplomatic negotiation, with the stakes ever higher given that the US and Russia are at loggerheads over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. The White House said that special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens will now take over the case, though neither authority gave insight into why they’re just now negotiating on Griner’s behalf.

To back up: Griner, a star centre for the US Women’s National Basketball Association, was travelling to Russia from New York in mid-February for her off-season stint playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg when she was detained for possession of narcotic hash oil, according to Russian authorities. News of her detention was only made public in March, more than a week after Russian president Vladmir Putin sent troops into Ukraine, and the delicate nature of a high-profile arrest of a sport celebrity led to an initial period of quiet strategization among Griner’s family, business partners, and legal team about next steps.

But underlying the now-supercharged effort to secure Griner’s release is the financial circumstances that sent her to Russia in the first place: for years, the top women basketball players in the world have decamped east of the Ural Mountains for lush salaries within the EuroLeague. Before Griner, fellow WNBA legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were fixtures at “Ekat”, as the team is sometimes called, where they earned many multiples over their pay in the W, fixed at a hard salary cap in the low six figures.

The salary cap isn’t unique to the WNBA — each of the NBA, NHL and NFL have limits on roster payrolls — but the ceiling of just over $200,000 for current players is one hundred times below pro contracts in the men’s leagues.

Still, a recent surge in the league’s popularity — ratings for the most recent season rose 49 per cent year-on-year — could portend less reliance on off-season gigs: “There are definitely still challenges as it pertains to the overseas commitments”, said LaChina Robinson, an ESPN analyst before tip-off of the WNBA’s 26th season on Friday. “Yes, we all want players to make more money, but, overall, there’s more money coming into the league, and more eyes on the product and that’s always a really good thing”.

This week, the WNBA began honouring Griner by featuring her initials and jersey number on courts. As the Phoenix Mercury star’s diplomatic saga persists, more attention than possibly ever before will be on the women’s game.

Why Jim Ratcliffe’s bid for Chelsea fell on deaf ears

Jim Ratcliffe: cold shoulder © Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

It’s not every day that investment bankers give the “cold shoulder” to one of the world’s richest men.

But merchant bank Raine Group refused to entertain a last-gasp offer for Chelsea from Jim Ratcliffe, founder of petrochemicals company Ineos, who has lined up £4.25bn to acquire and fund the football club.

Instead, Raine has gone with US financier Todd Boehly and investment firm Clearlake Capital, backed by Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.

Private equity tycoons Josh Harris and David Blitzer, not to mention basketball moguls Stephen Pagliuca and Larry Tanenbaum, also made the shortlist, finishing as runners-up to Boehly.

So why did Ineos’s “British bid, for a British club” fail to make the grade?

For starters, Ratcliffe was late to the party. Too late, it would appear, having dodged the formal process that opened when oligarch Roman Abramovich confirmed he was selling the west London club soon after Russia invaded Ukraine.

It doesn’t help that Ineos has a history of questioning if Chelsea is worth the money, baulking at an asking price of more than £2bn in 2018 when Abramovich ultimately opted against selling. Ratcliffe also turned down the opportunity to bid ahead of earlier deadlines in this year’s auction.

Ineos director Tom Crotty told Scoreboard that the group’s sense of the price range was “a lot more sensible” than expected. He also pointed to increases in the value of the English Premier League’s international broadcast deals, which are expected to generate more than £10bn over the next three seasons.

“The numbers make sense,” he says. “We put the bid in and that’s it really, I suppose you can say we’ve had the cold shoulder.”

But the crux of it really comes down to leverage. Raine took three sets of deep-pocketed investors to the final stage of the auction, with two ready to step up in the event that Boehly’s group withdrew.

Allowing Ineos to crash the party risked driving the shortlisted bidders away. That’s far from ideal given that negotiations with Ratcliffe were not guaranteed to result in a deal.

Still, Ineos isn’t minded to go away.

“We don’t tend to give up on things too easily,” said Crotty. “Until this is a finished deal we’ll probably keep reminding people we’re offering an option.”

Highlights

AC Milan: destination unknown © Spada/LaPresse via AP
  • Former Goldman Sachs executive Gerry Cardinale butted in on asset manager Investcorp’s talks to acquire AC Milan. Cardinale’s RedBird Capital Partners, which owns a minority stake in the parent company of England’s Liverpool FC, is in talks with US hedge fund Elliott Management to buy the Serie A football club.

  • Legendary Dutch-Italian football agent Mino Raiola passed away this week at the age of 54. The FT’s Simon Kuper delivers his definitive obituary.

  • Reddit co-founder and Serena Williams’s husband Alexis Ohanian chats with the FT Weekend Magazine about the market for traditional trading cards amid the boon for sports-focused NFTs.

  • Today marks the first fully normal running of the Kentucky Derby since the onset of the pandemic, but one perennial feature of arguably the most prestigious US thoroughbred race will be absent. Controversial trainer Bob Baffert is currently suspended — and barred from entering horses in the next two Derbies — following the positive drugs test of his horse and initial 2021 winner Medina Spirit. The Wall Street Journal has a rundown on the two other entrants with ties to Baffert.

Transfer Market

Lydia Jett: SoftBank’s eyes on Fanatics © Fanatics
  • Fanatics, the sports merchandise and memorabilia unicorn, added two executives to its board of directors. They include SoftBank Investment Advisers managing partner Lydia Jett and Jonathan Mildenhall, co-founder of marketing consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. The appointments follow Fanatics’ recent fundraising which valued the firm at $27bn.

Chequered flag

Formula One, the global racing series, is heading to Florida this weekend for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix. F1’s US owners Liberty Media are bringing a touch of Super Bowl spectacle to the sport. The Williams sisters, Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson are just some of the famous names expected to attend the race, which is taking place at the home complex of the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. But check out the mini marina. One divisive aspect on social media? The fake water. Watch Sky Sports’ Craig Slater take a dip. Don’t dive in.

Scoreboard is written by Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team

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