The consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly has moved clear in the race to buy Premier League club Chelsea for more than $4.4 billion (£3.5bn), after being selected as the preferred bidder despite a last-ditch higher offer from British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, sources have told ESPN.
In a dramatic day of developments, the New York-based merchant bank Raine Group, appointed to handle the sale of the club, were in the midst of identifying a leading candidate from the three remaining parties when Ratcliffe confirmed a new offer totalling £4.25bn ($5.3bn).
The deadline for bids passed more than two weeks ago, but Ratcliffe believed he could take advantage of ongoing delays in the bidding process which included further talks at Stamford Bridge this week between senior club figures and the three finalists: Boehly's group, another featuring British businessman Sir Martin Broughton and a third headed by Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca.
Yet Raine Group continued their deliberations as planned, first informing representatives from the Pagliuca and Broughton bids later on Friday that their offers would not be progressed.
And now sources have told ESPN that Boehly has won the race to be named as the preferred bidder put forward to be ratified by the UK government and the Premier League to succeed Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea declined to confirm the preference for Boehly when contacted by ESPN but it is understood the consortium, which also includes Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, is now considered the front-runner.
Further talks are planned between Chelsea and Raine over how to proceed with Ratcliffe's 11th-hour intervention. Sources have suggested Ratcliffe, owner of petrochemicals giant INEOS, sensed an opportunity after talks between Chelsea and the three remaining parties dragged over the valuation and the amount to be passed to a charity set up to help the victims of the war in Ukraine.
Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government over his alleged ties to Russia President Vladimir Putin and as a result, the oligarch is not allowed to receive any proceeds from the sale.
Ratcliffe tabled a cash offer for a transaction that he insisted could be completed within days, accompanied by a statement that read: "This is a British bid for a British club. We believe that a club is bigger than its owners who are temporary custodians of a great tradition, with responsibility to the fans and the community."
Sources have told ESPN there has been frustration at Raine Group's organisation of the sale from within the other remaining bidders, and that frustration would likely grow markedly if Raine Group give serious consideration to such a late new offer.
Earlier this week, Abramovich asked for an extra £500 million to go to a charity set up to help Ukraine war victims -- under government terms, he cannot receive any proceeds from the sale himself. This caused a delay that led Nadine Dorries, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, to declare Chelsea "on borrowed time" to complete a sale given that their special licence to operate while under Abramovich's ownership expires May 31.
Another of the bidding consortiums was led by former British Airways chairman Martin Broughton, whose offer is backed by Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and tennis star Serena Williams.