Last month I was fascinated to hear the news that the billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe was considering making a bid to buy Manchester United.
Reputed to be the richest man in Britain, with a net worth estimated to be around £28 billion, Sir James Arthur Ratcliffe FIChemE (born 18 October 1952) is the Chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Ineos Chemicals Group, which he founded in 1998 and which was estimated to have a turnover of $15 billion in 2019. Bloomberg estimates that he is now the 55th richest man in the world.
But why should this interest the readers of this column, I hear you ask.
The answer is fourfold and relates to Ratcliffe’s geographical origins as a born-and-bred northerner, his working-class background, his business strategy and his sporting interests, all of which would, on the face of it, seem to make him a natural for taking an interest in Rugby League.
Ratcliffe was born in Failsworth, a town 2.9 miles southwest of Oldham, in 1952. His father was a joiner and his mother was an accounts office worker. He lived there in a council house until the age of ten.
Given how strong Oldham Rugby League club (above) was in those days, it would be hard to imagine that Jim as a young lad wouldn’t have been aware of players like Bernard Ganley, Alan Davies, Charlie Winslade, Derek Turner, Sid Little and many others, especially when that team won the Championship at Maine Road in 1957, defeating Hull FC 15-14. Surely they would have been the talk of all his schoolmates.
At the age of ten, he moved with his family to East Yorkshire, attending Beverley Grammar School and living in Hull until the age of 18. Again, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have been aware of Hull’s status as a major Rugby League city in the 1960s.
Then we come to his business career.
He was a co-founder of a company called Inspec, which leased the former BP Chemicals site in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1998 he formed Ineos in Hampshire to buy-out Inspec and the freehold of the Antwerp site.
He then started buying unwanted operations from groups such as ICI and BP, selecting targets that in his view were clearly under-performing and therefore he was able to significantly raise their income profiles.
This business strategy has been extraordinarily successful and you can now probably see why I am writing this article.
Is there a better example of an industry that under-performs than rugby league?
And Ratcliffe has shown himself to be interested in sport in a variety of fields.
On 13 November 2017, he became the owner of FC Lausanne-Sport, a Swiss Super League football club.
In 2018 he partnered with Ben Ainslie to form Ineos Team UK to compete for the 36th America’s Cup in 2021, with Ratcliffe reportedly investing over £110 million in the project.
On 19 March 2019 he purchased the Team Sky cycling franchise, subsequently rebranding it as Team Ineos. Their first competitive race under the new Ineos sponsorship was the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire. They subsequently won the 2019 Tour de France and 2021 Giro d’Italia with the Colombian rider Egan Bernal.
On 22 August 2019, the French competition authority permitted the €100 million takeover of Ligue 1 club OGC Nice from Chinese-American entrepreneur Chien Lee by Ineos.
In February 2020 Ineos became the principal partners of the Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team, signing a five-year agreement with the team.
In July 2021 New Zealand Rugby announced a six-year sponsorship from Ineos for the All Blacks and the Black Ferns women’s team.
In April 2022 he made a bid of £4.25 billion for Chelsea FC after Roman Abramovich put it up for sale. His bid was rejected and Chelsea FC were eventually sold to US businessman Todd Boehly, which probably explains Ratcliffe’s expressed interest in buying Manchester United.
So my question is this. Why do people like Sir Jim Ratcliffe, whose background and temperament would suggest a potential empathy with Rugby League, go elsewhere when they decide to invest in sport?
Why do we attract relatively few wealthy individuals into our sport? And how can we change things so that people like Jim Ratcliffe do want to get involved, by buying a club, for example?
The RFL recently entered into a twelve-year partnership with IMG to enhance Rugby League’s commercial profile.
I sincerely hope they find a solution to my last question.
If they can, Rugby League will enjoy a much brighter future.
This article features in the September issue of Rugby League World magazine in my ‘Final Whistle’ column. To subscribe go here.