On Thursday of this week, Pompey announced that talks with prospective new owner, Michael Eisner, had progressed sufficiently for the club to sign an exclusivity deal with the American. This means that the club will not enter into discussions with any other party for a 70 day period. This must mean that Eisner’s approach is a very serious one and that the club are prepared to listen to any offer he makes.
To many Brits, including myself, Eisner is not a particularly well known figure and I had not heard the name before The News broke the story earlier in the week. However, thanks to google, the facts about Pompey’s latest possible owner have become clearer. It turns out that the American billionaire has had an illustrious career in the film industry, having previously been the Chief Executive of both Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney. Eisner oversaw the expansion of the Disney empire in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time several theme parks were opened and Eisner’s most memorable film was made, The Little Mermaid. However, he left Disney in 2000 amid claims that the company had ‘lost its soul.’ This was due to Eisner appointing a friends as Chairman instead of a loyal deputy who had expected the role, leading to a faction of the company splitting off to form Dreamworks. Although his reign at Disney did not come to the most savoury end, it does not sound as though he did anything too badly wrong as the company was still making fortunes and he was prepared to resign when it was clear he was no longer wanted.
It is clear from Eisner’s credentials that he has more than enough money to be able to support the club if he took over, and the Pompey board have been clear that more funding would be necessary if the Blues are to return to the Championship for any length of time. At present they have one of the largest playing budgets in League Two, but would only have a mid-table budget in League One. As for the Championship, the average wage bill is around £20 million per year, compared to Pompey’s £2 million, so it is obvious why the club is open to the idea of outside investment. As to where Pompey could get with Eisner at the helm, I feel that the Championship would be a realistic expectation within a couple of years but that people who are expecting Premier League football to return to Fratton Park any time soon, possibly followed by major trophies, are getting too far ahead of themselves. The amount of money it takes to sustain a Championship club, let alone get one promoted is colossal and, in any case, Pompey need to concentrate on getting there first.
Judging by polls on social media, fans seem fairly split on whether or not to allow Eisner to buy the Blues. In a poll conducted by PompeyNewsNow soon after Eisner’s interest became known, 55% of Pompey fans said they would want the takeover to go ahead, 31% said they were undecided, while 14% said they would not support the bid. Personally I am in the ‘wait and see’ camp as, although the idea of a takeover seems attractive, it would be stupid to come to any concrete decision before we know the exact terms of the bid and what it would mean for the club going forward. The great thing about the situation at the moment is that opinion polls such as these are actually relevant as the Pompey Supporters Trust have announced that club shareholders will get a final vote on whether or not to go ahead with an deal with Eisner, assuming one can be agreed. It is fully deserved that those who stepped in to save the club from possible liquidation back in 2013 are the ones who will have the final decision in the next stage of Portsmouth’s future.
Most of those who have been outspoken against the sale of the club tend to feel that way because they want to continue with the current fan ownership model rather than because they see any problem with Eisner himself. It cannot be disputed that the way Portsmouth is currently run is a working brilliantly, as for any club to have operating profits in professional football is near enough unheard of. By all accounts, the board are very open with Paul Cook and allow him to take full control of transfers, and Mark Catlin, the current Chief Executive, even answers fans’ questions every month to keep fans informed in the day to day running of the football club. However, if fan ownership worked all the way up to the Premier League, every club would use that format, so supporters must accept that Pompey can only keep the current format for a so long if they are to climb back up the leagues. The current model would work for getting promoted back to League One, as has been shown by the last two seasons, but it would be very difficult to get promoted out of the third tier without some form of outside investment.
I am obviously only commenting from the perspective of an outsider as only those within the club really know what is going on, but I feel that central to any deal being accepted would be the clause that the Pompey Supporters Trust would still need to have some stake in the club. Pompey have gone through too many episodes with rich owners in the recent past to let the entire club go and leave themselves open to mismanagement again in the future. Therefore, the progress of talks with Eisner rely on the American being prepared to allow the PST to keep some share of the club or the shareholders will surely reject the deal. For me, this is for the best as, although Pompey need to move on from their past, it is important to safeguard the club against anything similar happening again.
Overall, I am probably leaning towards supporting Michael Eisner’s takeover bid as outside investment can only help the club, provided it is run in the right way. Eisner seems like a reliable sort of figure with plenty of money and experience, and he also seems to be serious about his interest in the club, with him and his sons already having attended several of Pompey’s games this season. However, the one point in discussions that I would insist on is that the PST have some sort of role in the running of the club to ensure that Pompey are never threatened with extinction again. This could possibly be done with the PST having one member on the board. Realistically, no deal about buying the club is going to be reached before this summer at the earliest, and I’m sure Pompey fans will agree that there are more pressing matters at hand to deal with before then. Besides, proving to Mr Eisner that the club can win promotion would only increase his interest, as well as giving a fitting farewell to the fan ownership model.
Everyone can debate the takeover as much as they want for now, but when it comes to the remainder of the Blues’ matches this season it is important that everybody focuses on the league to ensure that Pompey can put on one final burst and get over the finish line in the automatic promotion places. Besides, Eisner might be more willing to take over if Pompey aren’t still in this Mickey Mouse league come next season!