Two decades at the helm of global entertainment giant Walt Disney might seem a strange apprenticeship for taking over a lower-level English football club, but Michael Eisner insists it is the latest logical move in his high-flying business career.
The 75-year-old American completed his takeover of historic south coast club Portsmouth in August for £5.67m, buying it from fans who had stepped in with their own money to save the club.
The club, nicknamed Pompey, had fallen on hard financial times since winning the FA Cup in 2008, and had dropped from the Premier League to the bottom tier, but did get promoted back to League One at the end of last season.
After a lifetime working for some of the biggest US and international TV and film firms, including ABC and Paramount as well as Disney, the native of New York state had launched his own investment firm, and was looking for interesting projects to back.
Mr Eisner, whose net worth is estimated at $1bn (£760m), and his Tornante group will invest £10m in the club.
‘Passion is key’
“What is an American guy doing getting involved with English football?,” he says.
“Well, I am qualified for this new role. In a way I feel my whole career has led up to this.”
Indeed, during his time in the entertainment industry Mr Eisner was involved in a number of sports-related projects, including TV scheduling, film production, and the acquisition of clubs.
“There are differences between sport and entertainment – one must be scripted, planned, produced, and the other is more spontaneous, extemporaneous. But both have conflict, a climax and an ending,” he observes.
“And whatever your brand, product, league, club – the idea of loyalty or passion is key.”
And Eisner says it was the raucous fan reaction to Portsmouth winning promotion, and the League Two title, last season that was the final factor in convincing him to buy the club.
“Because of this mad enthusiasm I found Pompey irresistible,” he said at the Leaders sports conference in London.
“I had first heard about the possibility of acquiring the club when I was looking at the possibility of buying a US sports team. Investing in US sport is very expensive. The NFL has its physical problems which scare me.
“It [football] just seemed a great thing to me and my family. We got hooked on the game in the UK.”
‘Excitement and history’
Mr Eisner and his three sons, Breck, Eric, and Anders, make up the Portsmouth board, along with Andy Redman, president of Tornante, and Portsmouth FC chief executive Mark Catlin.
Despite its recent woes the club has a strong heritage, winning the League title in 1949 and 1950, and FA Cup in 1939 as well as nine years ago.
“When I passed through the Fratton Park turnstiles I felt like I did when I stepped through the doors at Disney – a sense of excitement and of a rich history,” he says.
“Portsmouth fans are passionate. [After] four strange owners the fans stepped in and bought the team.
“Pompey fans had done a remarkable job but it seemed they would need additional investment to build the brand.”
He says there were another reasons, apart from fan passion and history, that he and his family wanted to buy a football club.
One is the fact that football has a global appeal, and also – in a currently fractured media landscape – “the only appointment-to-view [TV] is for sports events”.
“Today, viewers can watch the shows they want any time they want on on multiple devices. But sport fans want to watch their teams compete in real time,” he says.
That means that sports, and football, TV rights will always be in high demand by broadcasters looking for content.
As well as the expertise and cash that Eisner is providing, he is also promising to improve the stadium and promote managerial stability.
“Over time we will make the match day experience the pleasure it should be,” he says, adding the club will also continue to build on its strong community work, for which it has won a number of Football League awards.
Michael Eisner: A Sporting Life
“At ABC TV in 1970 we made a crack in the traditional entertainment wall, by moving NFL Football to prime time on a Monday night. ABC was the smallest network and needed success,” he says.
It became one of the longest-running prime time shows ever on commercial network TV.
At Paramount he oversaw production of sports films Players, North Dallas Forty, and the Bad News Bears trilogy.
In 1984 he became Disney chairman and the company produced the film The Mighty Ducks. Disney in 1993 then created an actual ice hockey team called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, now the Anaheim Ducks. In 2006-07 the team won the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
Disney also produced baseball film Angels in the Outfield in 1984. In 1997 Disney took over the California Angels team. It was renamed the Anaheim Angels and under Disney’s ownership won its first World Series championship in 2002.
During Mr Eisner’s time at Disney it also acquired leading sports cable TV channel ESPN in 1996.
His current private firm bought the Topps sports trading card firm in 2007. It is licensed to produce English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Uefa Champions League, and Indian Premier League cricket products.
‘Triumph of the underdog’
Mr Eisner now says the club, which sits mid-table in League One, now needs stability and continuity on and off the playing field.
He believes if club owners give their manager support, then the coaching team will have the confidence to lead the team to success.
“If you look at the great sports teams, you try to find a great manager and stick with him through thick and thin,” he says.
He says he hopes current manager Kenny Jackett will be in the post for a decade, and oversee success during that time.
“The Disney fans are similar to Portsmouth fans,” he says. “When I went there it was about to be broken up. The fans’ love of Disney helped support it.
“All of Disney’s sports films had the same theme – the triumph of the underdog. With Portsmouth we hope to get it right in fact, not fiction.
“We will get there – being slow, steady and smart.”
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