The Billionaire Who Can’t Stop Buying Sports Teams

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joshua Robinson headlined “The Billionaire Tycoon Who Can’t Stop Buying Sports Teams”:

Jim Ratcliffe, the British petrochemicals billionaire, was on a 5,000-mile motorcycle journey through the Andes a few years ago and feeling pretty bored with the state of sports. No one was really going after the biggest barriers in human performance anymore, he thought. What was even left?

Then, somewhere on the road in Argentina, he settled on a sporting achievement that actually excited him: Ratcliffe wanted to see someone run a marathon in under 2 hours. So he hired some of the best scientists in sports and the best marathoner in the world to make it happen. And in 2019, on a closed course in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in 1 hour and 59 minutes.

This, Ratcliffe realized, was how he wanted to spend his time. Being Britain’s richest man wasn’t enough, he was also in the process of making himself one of the world’s wealthiest, most influential armchair sports fans.

Over the next four years, Ratcliffe’s empire would expand from the Ineos petrochemical firm to include the professional cycling outfit formerly known as Team Sky, soccer clubs in France and Switzerland, a stake in the Mercedes Formula One team, and this week, was set to add a 25% share in the English soccer behemoth, Manchester United for around $1.5 billion.

Yet the most remarkable thing about Ratcliffe’s sporting enterprises is that he appears to be growing them not for profit but purely for his own amusement. Some sports fans buy streaming packages and season tickets to serve their entertainment needs. The 71-year-old Ratcliffe, who splits his time between the U.K. and Monaco, simply went out and bought the teams he liked. And with a fortune widely estimated to exceed $30 billion, he could afford it.

“There’s no clear strategic direction that’s led to the choices that have been made,” Fran Millar, the former CEO of Ineos Sports, told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “Jim’s a very passionate guy…He’s at a stage in his life where I think he’s making decisions based on what’s a fun, interesting, cool thing to do.”

The irony is that his pet projects now play out in front of millions of fans, while the business that put him in a position to fund them is largely unfamiliar to the general public. The Ineos Group, which Ratfcliffe founded in 1998, might be the Manchester United of global chemical companies, but it can’t quite compare to the actual Manchester United for broad recognition. As people close to Ratcliffe used to tell him: Ineos was the biggest company that no one had ever heard of.

That tends to suit Ratcliffe just fine. The son of a woodworker from the Manchester area, he earned a degree in chemical engineering, cut his teeth at major oil companies, and worked a stint in private equity before launching into his own chemicals business in the 1990s.

On the occasions that Ineos did make headlines, it was often for the wrong reasons. The company has run afoul of environmental groups in the U. K.—and occasionally butted heads with the British government—for its work in the importing and extraction of shale gas derived from fracking. In 2013, Ratcliffe’s clash with striking workers at a petrochemical plant in Scotland led to the plant’s closure, the loss of 800 Ineos jobs. Ratcliffe’s perceived intransigence earned him the nickname of a Bond villain: Dr. No.

In the meantime, Ratcliffe was using his astronomical wealth to fund projects that included the Brexit campaign, a line of 4×4 vehicles inspired by Land Rovers, and his personal Bond-style adventures. There were expeditions to the North and South Pole. There was the motorbike jaunt through the Andes. There was his first superyacht, the Hampshire, which he then upgraded in 2011 to the 257-foot Hampshire II.

But as he reached his mid-60s, Ratcliffe was ready to cultivate an even more expensive habit: buying into professional sports. He began with a nine-figure investment in Great Britain’s America’s Cup sailing team. A keen cyclist, he then took over the dominant Tour de France team of the 2010s and immediately promised it the largest budget in the sport. That was around the same time that he reportedly spent more than $20 million on the 2-hour marathon project.

“Ineos never wants to be the dumb money in town,” Ratcliffe told the Times of London in 2019. “Never, never.”

As any billionaire who has dabbled in the ownership of professional teams will tell you, dumb money and sports have a long history together—particularly when it comes to soccer. Teams are overpriced. European leagues bring the threat of relegation. And players aren’t traded between teams the way they are in the U.S. They’re bought and sold at huge expense with few opportunities to recoup any of those costs down the road.

That’s why Ratcliffe’s first soccer purchases weren’t in his native England at all. Despite growing up as a Manchester United fan and once owning season tickets at Chelsea, he began by acquiring the second-tier Swiss club FC Lausanne-Sport in 2017 for €7 million. Then, two years later, he picked up the first-division OGC Nice on the French Riviera for €110 million.

Ratcliffe’s investment in United is considerably pricier. Then again, few professional sports outfits in the world can boast Man United’s commercial clout. The club’s bigger problem is that under the ownership of the American Glazer family, it hasn’t won a Premier League title since 2013.

United supporters had been clamoring for fresh investment. But Ratcliffe’s arrival hardly guarantees success. In fact, it almost suggests the opposite.

For all of his lavish spending across the sports universe, his cycling team hasn’t won the Tour de France since its first full season as Team Ineos. Mercedes hasn’t claimed an F1 drivers’ championship since Ineos bought in. And despite Ratcliffe’s best efforts, one of the longest losing streaks in sports still remains intact: no British boat has ever won the America’s Cup.

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