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Report: Chelsea hold talks with Riyadh Air over shirt sponsorship deal

Premier League club seeking UK£60m per year package covering men’s and women’s teams.

7 September 2023 Ed Dixon

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  • Infinite Athlete in pole position to sign deal for 2023/24 season
  • Betting firm Kaiyun Sports also in contention
  • Chelsea still without front-of-shirt partner after Three contract expired

English soccer giants Chelsea have held talks with Saudi Arabian airline Riyadh Air over a potential front-of-shirt sponsorship deal, according to The Athletic.

Club officials reportedly hosted delegates from Riyadh Air, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), at Stamford Bridge during the Blues’ 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest on 2nd September and pitched a multi-year sponsorship deal for Chelsea’s men’s and women’s teams.

A Riyadh Air spokesperson told The Athletic that the airline is “not engaged in such talks” in terms of formal negotiations, but did not deny that meetings have taken place.

Chelsea are believed to be seeking an overall package of up to UK£60 million (US$74.8 million) per year for their front-of-shirt sponsorship. The value of the deal may fluctuate due to several factors, including the length of the contract and whether the club returns to the Uefa Champions League. The Premier League outfit finished 12th in the top flight last season, meaning the men’s side will not compete in any European club competition for 2023/24.

Chelsea’s previous shirt pact with Three, which expired at the end of last season, was reportedly worth UK£40 million (US$49.9 million) per year.

Founded in March 2023 and set to start flying in 2025, Riyadh Air is projected to add US$20 billion to Saudi Arabia’s non-oil gross domestic product (GDP) and create more than 200,000 jobs, as well as help reach the kingdom’s goal of attracting 100 million tourists by 2030. Last month, the airline was unveiled as the new main sponsor of Spanish club Atletico Madrid in a deal reportedly worth €40 million (US$42.8 million) per season.

If Chelsea did ink a front-of-shirt partnership with Riyadh Air, they would join Arsenal and Manchester City in having a deal with a Middle Eastern airline. The Gunners and the Citizens have agreements with Emirates and Etihad, respectively.

Chelsea announced Oman Air as their official airline partner over the summer.

According to The Athletic, another contender for Chelsea’ front-of-shirt sponsorship is Asian betting brand Kaiyun Sports, which announced a deal with Forest at the end of August.

The tie-up drew concerns over Kaiyun appearing to use the partnership to promote betting to audiences in China, where gambling firms are illegal. The company also has limited operations outside of Asia and its UK website remains under construction. However, it is able to access the UK market via a ‘white-label’ agreement with the Isle of Man-based TGP Europe.

The Athletic notes Kaiyun already has a partnership deal with Chelsea and was displayed on the billboards at Stamford Bridge during the Forest game. At the time of writing, the company is not listed on Chelsea’s website as a club partner.  

Chelsea had been poised to announce a shirt deal with betting firm Stake in June only to scrap the proposed arrangement following a backlash from fans.

Last month, it was reported Chelsea had agreed a front-of-shirt sponsorship with sports technology startup Infinite Athlete to replace Three. However, the final value of the deal will be decided by the Premier League’s fair market rules and is still awaiting approval. Questions are also being asked about where the funding for the deal is coming from, considering Infinite Athlete’s annual turnover is estimated at US$15.4 million.

Infinite Athlete, which recently rebranded from Tempus Ex Machina, counts Silver Lake, which owns a minority stake in Manchester City, as an investor. Silver Lake is also an investor in Fanatics along with Eldridge, the company owned by Chelsea chairman and co-owner Todd Boehly.

According to The Athletic, Chelsea do not consider these links, along with Riyadh Air being owned by PIF, which controls Newcastle United, to be a deterrent to the Infinite Athlete proposal, which remains in pole position.

The prospective front-of-shirt deal with Infinite Athlete is only expected to run until the end of 2023/24 and Chelsea are reportedly targeting long-term agreements from next season.

As well as Riyadh Air and Kaiyun, the Blues are purportedly in discussions with other companies, including another major US technology company.

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