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At Large: Just what are Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s plans in sport?

Britain’s richest man has taken over cycling’s Team Sky, Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup challenge and Eliud Kipchoge’s run at history. He insists claims he is ‘greenwashing’ the reputation of his chemicals company, Ineos, are inaccurate, but has he offered enough to counter that impression?

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Just what are Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s plans in sport?

What connects cycling’s Team Sky, the UK entry for sailing’s 2021 America’s Cup and Swiss second-tier soccer club FC Lausanne Sport? The short answer is that they are all now being funded by petrochemicals magnate Sir Jim Ratcliffe. Beyond that, you would have to ask him.  

The Ineos owner’s personal wealth surged a little over UK£15 billion (US$19.5 billion) to UK£21 billion (US$27.3 billion) a year ago, according to the Sunday Times, making him Britain’s richest man. Ineos recently unveiled plans for a €3 billion (US$3.35 billion) investment in the Belgian port of Antwerp, despite the Brexit-backing Ratcliffe’s oft-voiced misgivings about the future of the European chemicals market. It also holds the exploratory rights for gas fracking across Cheshire, Yorkshire and the Midlands, although regulatory limits have hampered its efforts to exploit those thus far. 

Ratcliffe’s latest sporting wheeze is the Ineos 1.59 Challenge, in which Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s best marathon runner, will try for a second time to run 26.2 miles in under two hours. Slated for an unconfirmed London course on an unconfirmed October date, the whole endeavour carries echoes of Nike’s Breaking 2 event in Monza in May 2017. 

If Nike appeared a more obvious patron for this attempt than Ineos, Ratcliffe countered with the revelation that his running habit was formed before Nike existed. Either way, Kipchoge has spoken of his hopes of writing “history for the human family”, the kind of broad, powerful sentiment to which multinationals like being attached. 

When a private individual starts hovering over the sports industry with large bags of cash, there are a couple of sensible questions to ask. The first one: “Is this for real?” Or more pertinently, is the money? In the darkest corners of the imagination lurks the image of Allen Stanford landing a massive case of someone else’s cash on the turf at Lord’s Cricket Ground, some time before starting a 110-year prison sentence for fraud.  

There can be no concerns with Ratcliffe in that regard – Ineos turns over about UK£44 billion (US$57.2 billion) a year and employs over 10,000 people. So the second question worth posing is: why is he doing this? According to the man himself, it’s mostly for the fun of it. 

“You don’t want to get too deep about it really,” Ratcliffe said, speaking to reporters at the launch of Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon challenge. “We make US$6 billion to US$7 billion a year in profit. What’s wrong with investing a bit of that into sport, good challenges and some good people?”

Ratcliffe, it is true, has a fairly extensive personal entertainment budget. He is the owner of a UK£130 million (US$169 million) superyacht called Hampshire II, whose features include a helicopter pad which can be converted into a football pitch, and an on-board wine cellar with undersea views.    

“We make US$6 billion to US$7 billion a year in profit. What’s wrong with investing a bit of that into sport, good challenges and some good people?

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos chairman and chief executive

Still, formerly secretive billionaires with jealously tended tax plans don’t usually make large public-facing investments for the hell of it. Environmental groups have been quick to link Ratcliffe’s spending to wider controversies about his business interests, from concerns about the real impact of fracking to the overextension of the plastics market. Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, has described the acceptance of Ineos sponsorship as “wholly inappropriate”. 

“At a time when the climate scientists are urging us to phase out fossil fuels as fast as possible, Ineos is also trying to establish a new polluting fossil fuel industry in Britain, namely fracking,” he said.

“Ineos’s sponsorship of sports teams stems from a desire to greenwash its highly damaging and polluting activities.”

This correspondent isn’t about to claim any significant knowledge of the environmental rights and lefts of fracking – which has been linked with risks to public health and even earthquakes – and that’s probably the point. Taking a debate out of the realm of the specialist and reframing it for the well-meaning but under-informed generalist is a pretty useful trick. 

The sports press has not allowed Ratcliffe to separate his sports investment from public criticism of Ineos’ wider activities. Meanwhile the anti-fracking movement now has a new set of backdrops for its protests, notably picketing the Tour de Yorkshire during Team Ineos’ debut there last week. Yet Ratcliffe, who insists the ‘greenwashing’ charge is wide of the mark, has hardly been shy about advancing his cause on this new platform. 

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has not yet offered much on his proposed style of leadership or his goals for each of his sporting projects

There can’t be too many other BBC Sport interviews that encompass the potential of shale gas to create “a new domestic energy source” which would add “thousands of well-paid, quality jobs” in disaffected areas of the English north. Ratcliffe’s central thesis is that the hysteria around fracking has caused people to look away from “the science”; repeated often enough, without qualified challenge, that’s the kind of line that shifts public polling. 

As vehemently as he claims “the sport is totally different”, it is difficult to identify any pattern or strategy that is properly independent of Ineos’ public relations. Beyond a few choice words about withdrawing support for Team Ineos if its riders are caught doping, Ratcliffe has not yet offered much on his proposed style of leadership or his goals for each project. 

That impression may change if he is successful in securing his biggest target: Premier League soccer club Chelsea. He has been linked with a potential UK£2 billion takeover of the club from Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich. Ratcliffe has been happy to keep that speculation alive. 

The scale of investment required to buy and run Chelsea would be many multiples greater than that spent on any of his ventures so far, while the possible returns could also be the making of a mature sports ownership vehicle. Still, Abramovich’s own 16-year-old stewardship of the club set the modern template for image laundering. 

Until Ratcliffe reveals a different formula, that’s the kind of comparison that will only endure.