“The only thing in the future, and today, that is appointment to view,” he said of live sports. “There’s a saying in hockey: you skate to where the puck is going to be. This is a good place to be in the media.”
His group’s initial investment of $7.8 million, a deal completed in August, is “one of the least risky things” he has ever done — much less risky, in his opinion, than his decision to take over a perpetually troubled Disney in 1984. He considered investing in American sports, he said, but found the cost of franchises in its major leagues beyond the pale. He said he considered deals for both Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer, but neither came to fruition.
Then, inspired by his ownership of the Topps trading card company and encouraged by visits to Arsenal with his son, he decided that English soccer was a better bet. He discussed buying a Premier League team, but when a Chinese investor gazumped his offer on one club, he decided to alter his strategy.
“I thought about promotion and relegation,” he said. “If I paid a Premier League price to get into this exclusive club, and they got relegated, I would fall into a deep depression. But if I bought a club in League One or League Two, where the upside was big and the downside small, where you can build up, not fall off the floor, that would be better.”
In this case, the better business proposition goes hand-in-glove with the better story. Over the last eight years, Portsmouth has become a byword for the perils of English soccer’s laissez-faire approach to foreign investment. There have been whispers of loan sharks and mafia connections and Continent -wide arrest warrants. One of the club’s former owners, a Saudi businessman called Ali al-Faraj, earned the nickname “Al-Mirage” because nobody was quite sure if he even existed.
That is partly what made Eisner’s offer so tempting to Portsmouth that 87 percent of the fan-owners backed it: the fact that he is very definitely real. “That he is well-known helped,” said Simon Colebrook, the chairman of the Pompey Supporters’ Trust. “We know where he comes from and where his money comes from. He has a public reputation to maintain, so if he does the dirty on us, he has something to lose.”
But it also may be what made Portsmouth so attractive to Eisner: the sense that there is a story here to be told, something to build, a team to take from the depths to the heights. That is the narrative arc of the sports movies he knows so well, after all — the small made mighty, the underdog rising from obscurity to greatness.
It is a story into which Eisner has thrown himself. The little things hint at his commitment. He says “pitch,” not “field.” He pronounces Portsmouth, as the British do, with the emphasis on the first syllable, not the last, as most outsiders might.