Dan Gilbert, whose bid for Detroit MLS team fizzled, eyes Chelsea soccer club

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert is looking to expand his sports portfolio, but not into Michigan.

Gilbert recently confirmed that he is part of a group prepared to bid on the Chelsea Football Club, the Premier League soccer franchise based in West London, England.

Gilbert's group includes the Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs, and Ken Griffin, an American hedge fund manager. The group's deadline to submit a final bid is Thursday.

"We are excited to join the Ricketts family and Ken Griffin for their bid to acquire Chelsea, one of the most admired football clubs and professional sports teams in the world," Gilbert said in a statement. "We have great respect and deep admiration for the long and winning tradition of Chelsea and their millions of fans across the world. Rock Entertainment Group will approach the bid for Chelsea with the same philosophy as we operate our other professional sports teams: an open mind and a listening ear to the fan base, ample investment and an unwavering commitment to both winning on the pitch and serving the community."

Gilbert's Rock Entertainment Group, which on Tuesday named Nic Barlage its new chief executive officer, includes the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, the NBA G League's Cleveland Charge, the NBA 2K League's Cavs Legion, and the AHL's Cleveland Monsters.

Adding Chelsea would give Rock Entertainment Group its most valuable asset. In 2021, Forbes named Chelsea the 25th most valuable sports franchise in the world, at $3.2 billion.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, but recently announced his intentions to sell following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The winning bid is expected to come in somewhere in the range of $2 billion to $3 billion. Fewer than 10 groups are expected to submit final bids this week. The Ricketts-Gilbert interest has been met with resistance in England, because of decade-old emails that resurfaced in which Joe Ricketts, the family patriarch, made racially insensitive comments, including against Muslims. Joe Ricketts isn't part of the family's bid, but the family has apologized again for the emails.

This isn't Gilbert's first effort to buy a soccer franchise. In 2016, Gilbert teamed up with Pistons owner Tom Gores in an attempt to bring a Major League Soccer expansion franchise to Detroit. Originally, Gilbert proposed a stadium on the stalled jail project site in Detroit, but those efforts fizzled. Gilbert then proposed an Atlanta United model, in which Detroit's club would share a stadium with the city's football team, at Ford Field. But MLS commissioner Don Garber wanted a standalone stadium for Detroit.

Gilbert and Gores also met resistance from some in Detroit's soccer community, which heavily supports the Detroit City Football Club out of Hamtramck. DCFC launched in 2012 and, through a grassroots effort, has climbed the ranks of North American soccer. This year, DCFC joined the USL Championship, not far beneath the MLS in the North American soccer hierarchy.

There have been no discussions between Gilbert, 60, and Gores, 57, and the MLS since prior to 2018. The MLS has 28 franchises, with eight (Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Los Angeles FC, Miami, Minnesota and Nashville) starting play after Detroit started talks with the MLS, and a ninth (St. Louis) coming in 2023.

Gilbert is a Michigan State and Wayne State alumnus who co-founded Quicken Loans and founded Rock Ventures. His companies sponsor the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the city's first annual PGA Tour tournament, held at Detroit Golf Club.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984