Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

How the PMG-Owned Clubs Barnsley, Nancy and Esbjerg Got Relegated In a Single Season

Posted on 10 June 2022 by Josh Sim

Warning: The following article contains language and content of an offensive nature.

For any fan, watching your team suffer relegation is always tough.

The joyless months that passed without warning. The despair taking in the reality of lower-league football for the next year. And anger directed at those who steered them towards a terrible unwarranted situation.

Now imagine a scenario of three different clubs, owned by the same group, all being relegated in a single year.

That’s what happened last season to England’s Barnsley FC, French side AS Nancy Lorraine, and Danish club Esbjerg fB. Crucially, they all happen to be owned by the Pacific Media Group, an advertising-solutions firm.

The Pacific Media Group (PMG) and Their Strategy

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Led by Chinese-American entrepreneur Chien Lee and American media executive Paul Conway, the group today has ownership stakes in seven different European clubs.

Aside from the three already mentioned, their network also includes Swiss team FC Thun, Belgian outfit KV Oostende, Dutch club FC Den Bosch and German side 1. FC Kaiserlautern.

A defining part of their philosophy is their commitment to a ‘Moneyball’ approach, made famous by baseball executive Billy Beane’s methods at the Oakland Athletics.

When recruiting, the group prioritise data analytics over traditional scouting methods. As a result, their teams tend to skew towards youth, to ensure profitability in the transfer market. Finally, they generally prefer to invest in players and coaches suited to a high-pressing style.

It is arguable that the group has achieved some degree of success. Under their watch, Barnsley reached the Championship play-offs with one of the youngest squads two seasons ago. And more recently, Kaiserlautern achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga.

But the hat-trick of relegations for Barnsley, Nancy and Esbjerg have given each fanbase cause for worry, with many unconvinced the strategy will benefit their beloved teams.

A Nightmare Season for Barnsley

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Having been acquired in December 2017, Barnsley have largely played in the Championship throughout PMG’s tenure. Last season however, they won only six games, finishing last in the table. 

For Barnsley fan and season-ticket holder James Lawton, the exits of head coach Valérian Ismäel and captain Alex Mowatt last summer were a big blow. CEO Dane Murphy then departed for Nottingham Forest, leaving supporters without a public figure to hear from.

With new head coach Markus Schopp given little time and say on recruitment, the on-field action was a disaster for Lawton. “We were absolutely garbage,” he says to the Sports Gazette.

“From the first kick-off, we were awful to watch. We didn’t know who was running the club behind the scenes.”

Schopp was the first of three head coaches in the dugout as the season went on, as the club desperately tried to fix their mistakes, in front of an increasingly frustrated fanbase. Adding to this, the club’s decision to close their West Stand in October due to alleged safety concerns was met with fury.

Lawton says: “I don’t think the fans would have been so angry if we didn’t have such a successful 2020-21 season. Because we made the play-offs, expectations went up. I got a bit carried away myself.

“It was a disappointment. You could see it unravel and nothing was done about it. I can’t think of one good thing that happened last season.

“To run three teams into relegation and being run disastrously, I don’t understand what has happened. It wasn’t a concern before, but alarm bells should be ringing now.”

With Lee and Conway recently being voted off the board and no longer responsible for day-to-day decision-making, Lawton is cautiously optimistic going forward.

“A month or two ago, I was seriously considering whether I wanted to renew my season ticket and go through it all again, because it was that heartbreaking to see what was happening to my club.

“I have now though, with the changes in the boardroom. I’m hopefully confident that we have changed and turned the corner. But we still haven’t appointed a manager which is a bit concerning.”

The Disaster at AS Nancy

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At AS Nancy, who were acquired in December 2020, there is little optimism.

Bottom of Ligue 2 last season, the Fans of Nancy website tells the Sports Gazette that poor leadership has defined their campaign.

They said: “Club president Gauthier Ganaye stubbornly tried to use data and gegenpressing. Neither one nor the other worked. He has also deserted the place, having not been seen at the stadium or training ground for nine months.

“Our commander was happily enjoying a few cigars on the French Riviera while we were taking a beating every weekend.”

“The owners got what they deserved. They are guilty. They killed our club.”

Unlike at Barnsley, the fan website has no hope for the group’s future strategy.

“Their failings don’t surprise me. Here, our club has never been so low.

“Everything must change. You can’t make money with a football club. And that’s the only purpose of their coming here.

“The fans felt humiliated for the entire season. The majority are disgusted and want them to leave.”

The Broken Trust at Esbjerg fB

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The latest of the trio to be under PMG, Esbjerg were acquired in March 2021. Last month, their relegation from the Danish second tier was confirmed.

For Esbjerg fan and freelance journalist Buster Kirchner, the problems began with the first big decision the group made in hiring Peter Hyballa as head coach.

“The atmosphere he brought was horrible”, he tells the Sports Gazette. “Hyballa himself was accused of violently abusing some of the players during pre-season.

“It was a chaotic, frustrating and confusing season. Many new players simply didn’t have the needed quality.

“Nearly every fan doesn’t respect them. At our last game, fans left the stadium in protest after 19 minutes and 24 seconds, as our club’s birth year is 1924. There were signs and banners with a ‘F*** PMG’ slogan.

“That was the absolute low point of the club’s last two decades.”

For Kirchner, the owners’ track record so far similarly brings pessimism.

He says: “They haven’t showed any awareness of football, or what it takes to perform in Danish football.

“Their three relegations really worry me and it’s frightening that there seems to be a pattern. It’s very concerning as the others are big clubs that should be performing better.

“They are businessmen with the intention of making a profit. It’s very frustrating, and I’m a bit emotional about this because it’s my boyhood club.”

Despite this, Kirchner sees a small chance for hope in the group’s leadership.

“We can stay a bit optimistic”, he says, “because it has only been the first year. Already, we have seen some improvements.

“Paul Conway initially came in like a wild cowboy making big decisions. He didn’t perform well and now it seems that he’s putting more responsibility on some local staff members.

“Their money brings the club security. Before them, we had unstable leadership and finances. So, everyone was initially excited when their takeover was announced.”

But like the others, he’s concerned at how their tenure will ultimately impact the fans.

“The fans’ connection to the club is in a critical state. People don’t know what the football club is and can’t identify themselves with the club.

“People here would rather sit home than go to the stadium. It’s the most depressing thing to hear.

“As a fan of any club, you want to identify with the players and club culture. And we can’t do that.”

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