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Chelsea Sponsors Begin to Unravel as Abramovich Sanction Bites

The crisis swirling around Chelsea Football Club deepened late Thursday as mobile phone company Three became the highest-profile name to say it no longer wanted to be associated with the club after Russian owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the U.K. government.

Three, owned by Li Ka-Shing’s holding company, pays about 40 million pounds a year for the right to have its logo displayed on the players’ jerseys. For a club that generated sponsorship income of 155 million pounds in its latest financial year, Three’s departure is a significant chunk.

Three is the first major brand to break ranks on the issue. Hyundai Motor Co. is assessing its partnership with the club, which is a six-time champion of England’s top soccer league and one of the most-recognized names in European sports. The biggest sponsor, Nike Inc., which signed a 15-year deal worth 900 million pounds in 2016, is yet to comment on the issue. It has, however, already hit the pause button on sales in Russia.

Three’s departure underscores the questions surrounding the short-term future of the club, which has been bankrolled by Abramovich for almost two decades.

The government stepped in Thursday and froze Abramovich’s assets citing his links to Russia President Vladimir Putin, effectively declaring itself the custodian of the club.

Chelsea may only operate under a special license under strict conditions. It can’t spend more than 20,000 pounds on getting its players, coaches and officials to away trips, can’t shift merchandise from its Stamford Bridge stadium in west London, and can’t sell match tickets to fans.

With revenue last year totaling 437 million pounds, Chelsea is largely limited to selling burgers and beers at its stadium to fill the coffers.

But on the field at its latest match, about 120 miles away at Norwich City, little appeared to change.

The players still had the 3 logo on their blue jerseys — possibly for the last time in a while — hundreds of Chelsea fans chanted their love for the club and some paraded a flag emblazoned with an image of Abramovich and the message, “The Roman Empire.”

The match result: Norwich 1, Chelsea 3, and another three points to the Blues.

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