Buy it now! How Tranmere Rovers ended up on eBay in 2009
If you search ‘Tranmere Rovers’ on eBay, a kaleidoscope of woeful ephemera presents itself. Jarg polo shirts. Worn Vandanel away strips. A customisable birthday card. Pint glasses, embroidered wallets from China, golf balls bearing the sacred emblem. Anything short of Tyrone Loran’s jockstrap, in essence. You could spend hours bidding on this garbage, if only such a ludicrous hobby was socially acceptable.
For a few short hours in 2009, however, the subterranean world of second-hand Tranmere Rovers tchotchke pulsed with demented excitement. You see, the entire football club, not just the useless trinkets fashioned in worship thereof, appeared on the world’s preeminent auction website. For the princely sum of $10 million, one could purchase a beloved Football League entity and its stadium. The seller even accepted PayPal. What more could your bog-standard memorabilia hoarder want?
Yes, this actually happened, dear reader. I wish this was extravagant flash fiction, like my tale of Tranmere winning the League Cup in 2000, but it is sadly true. Just over a decade ago, our professional football club was briefly listed on eBay, complete with free postage and packaging. If ever a topic deserved the full Planet Prentonia treatment, this is surely it. I struggle to find a more accurate microcosm of the manic idiosyncrasy that defines our club’s culture.
Why was Tranmere Rovers Football Club listed on eBay in 2009?
To understand why Tranmere ended up on eBay - listed somewhere between a bundle of used match programmes from 1967 and a signed Kithson Bain shinpad – we must first analyse the context in which such a harebrained decision was made. In other words, we must remind ourselves of those dark old days, back when Mick Horton left the Main Stand unpainted for two generations. That is right, folks – we are taking a trip back to 2009.
Despite barely missing out on a League One playoff spot in May 2009, club stalwart Ronnie Moore lost his job as Tranmere manager. Bedraggled owner Peter Johnson cited a slump in attendances among bizarre rationale for the decision, and he then appointed John Barnes - a woefully unqualified candidate - to succeed Moore. Adding to the general hilarity, Jason McAteer signed on as Barnes’ assistant, inspiring the nickname Dumb and Dumber among hardcore supporters.
Evidently, the club was sliding towards a bleak financial future. Years of commercial neglect and corporate atrophy left Tranmere caught between yesterday and tomorrow, dreaming of their second tier zenith but plummeting towards their non-league nadir. Rovers resembled an analogue club as football barrelled towards its digital age. There was no long-term blueprint for success.
At the helm since 1987, Johnson grew tired of bankrolling the club, and he effectively pulled the plug on a benefactor model that had become increasingly strained. Rovers would only spend what they generated themselves, came the decree, placing emphasis on gate receipts and merchandise sales. Gone was the interest of a fatigued sugar daddy, leaving Tranmere to fend for itself.
Johnson eyed retirement in Switzerland, his adopted European enclave, but a cogent exit strategy proved difficult to finalise. Seemingly out of ideas without trying especially hard, the local entrepreneur appointed Dornoch Capital, an American investment brokerage, to find someone who would take Tranmere Rovers off his hands. In turn, without thinking too much about it, Dornoch lobbed the club on eBay. Subtlety was obviously not their strong suit.
Who put Tranmere Rovers on eBay?
The idea to list a professional football club on eBay came from Joe Kosich, co-founder of Dornoch Capital, a now-extinct advisory boutique that sounds more inept with each press article one reads about its delusional vision and cavalier approach.
A science graduate from Northern Illinois University, Kosich harbours a barely believable track record, having worked as a leading executive for prestigious organisations like Citi, Bank of America and Wells Fargo prior to starting Dornoch from humble North Carolina offices.
“Dornoch provides focused acquisitions, divestiture and corporate finance advice to ultra-high net worth investors in the US and UK in the sports and media space,” reads Kosich’s own CV, posted clumsily to a recruitment website in 2010. Determining the plausibility of those claims, and the extent to which they were achieved, is somewhat difficult, but Kosich certainly developed a penchant for convincing British football club owners to believe his shtick.
What did the Tranmere eBay listing actually say?
“Our firm views Tranmere as a club with great potential,” Kosich told the Sports Business Journal in 2009, shortly after his involvement in talks were revealed. “[The club has] great financial flexibility due to extremely modest debt levels."
If such insights seem apocryphal, the credibility of that Sports Business Journal piece is further tarnished by a quote that is so obviously fictitious as to inspire laughter. “I bought the club in 1987,” said Peter Johnson, according to the report. “I’m ready to go off to pasture in Europe.” A less Peter Johnson sentence has never been written.
Alas, midway through the summer of 2009, Kosich pushed the button on the most infamous eBay listing in football history. The listing – entitled Own an English football club, Tranmere Rovers FC – made reference to the Superwhites’ ‘historic brand and fan base in FA football dating back over 100 years.’
Hoping to entice investors, Kosich noted several redeeming features of the club, including its enormous potential for creating ‘revenue growth’ through sponsorship, television revenues and ‘upgrading the fan experience.’ Indeed, Prenton Park, Rovers’ home stadium, was included in the package, while there were allusions to Johnson writing off substantial amounts of debt.
The offer of ‘free shipping’ was a nice touch, as if the Cowshed could be dismantled and couriered to a different country. No returns were accepted, however. After all, the club had not won a trophy for 18 years by that point, and it was known to foist psychological trauma on its devotees.
Assessing the fallout from the Tranmere Rovers eBay debacle
Word of the absurd eBay listing travelled quickly, spreading like wildfire on Rovers forums and websites. Soon, the mainstream media caught wind of the brewing debacle, peppering the Prenton Park switchboard with requests for comment. Amid mounting disinterest, Johnson’s regime became defined by a laconic approach to public relations, but this story demanded a break from the typically glacial flow of Prentonian communications.
“We were appalled,” Johnson told the Daily Mail, hoping to douse the flames. “You can imagine how shocked we were to wake up this morning to find out we were on eBay. It’s not a second-hand bike we are selling. If the right person comes in and wants to buy Tranmere, then they can do so. I don’t know where that price came from, and I will be considering their [Dornoch's] position.
“One has to think of the supporters and the ability to run the club. Putting it on eBay is not the right way of doing it, and we would certainly have not let them if they had asked us. We are pretty furious.”
Naturally, such slapstick rhetoric served only to stoke interest in the story, which gathered even more attention in accordance with the deepening of its preposterousness. Johnson’s failure to grasp the magnitude of such simmering humiliation poured fuel on the fire, to the point where Rovers were forced to issue an official statement decrying the scandal.
“Peter Johnson has appointed Dornoch Capital to broker a sale of his shares in the club to a responsible US investor,” it read. “Mr Johnson was very disappointed to discover that Dornoch Capital had chosen eBay.com as a route to find a potential buyer and would not have given them permission to do so had he been asked. Mr Johnson has instructed Dornoch to remove the eBay listing immediately.”
Rightly furious, Johnson still resembled a microcosm of his club’s downfall – ponderous, dated and painfully out of touch. Within seven years of appearing on eBay, Rovers languished in the non-league abyss, relegated twice amid a critical mass of neglect. Moreover, while the choice of medium was plainly ridiculous, some Tranmere fans acknowledged that, in certain areas, Dornoch Capital outlined a more prosperous vision for their football club than Johnson had in a decade. At least they seemed motivated to find a buyer. Nobody else did.
Before long, journalists followed the breadcrumbs to North Carolina, contacting Kosich for his take on the furore. Naturally, the Dornoch managing director downplayed the episode, saying it was a pre-planned publicity stunt that had, in a sense, worked remarkably well.
“It was done to create buzz and publicity surrounding the sale and to get Tranmere onto people’s radar over here in the US,” Kosich told the Liverpool Echo. “To that extent, it worked. We are attracting publicity in the US and the UK, and I have had contact and emails from people who saw the eBay listing before it was withdrawn and now want to know more about Tranmere. I could not have asked for more publicity and buzz about Tranmere than we are getting right now.”
While Rovers fans continue to bristle at this notion, it almost makes sense - in a happy-clappy, helpy-selfie, hyper-American psychobabble sort of way. In the end, though, ownership of the club did not change hands for another five years, and when it eventually did, the new custodians – Mark and Nicola Palios – would never entertain such wayward shenanigans.
From Bruce Osterman to Club 9 Sports via Tesco and eBay - A brief history of American interest in Tranmere Rovers
Of course, the botched involvement of Dornoch Capital was not the first episode of American interest in Tranmere Rovers. In 1984, Bruce Osterman, a lawyer from San Francisco, bought the club, mainly to fulfil his destiny as a hobbyist goalkeeper. Rovers duly became the first English football club under American ownership, and though Osterman injected plenty of cash into Tranmere, his reign ended in acrimony.
Chasing his diminished investment, the bespectacled attorney even planned to liquidate the football club and build a Tesco store on the sight of Prenton Park. Only a nascent administration order saved Rovers from becoming a supermarket, in essence. Apparently, the club seems predestined for regular brushes with commerce-based humiliation.
In some ways, then, Kosich can be seen as Osterman’s doppelgänger for the digital age. Following the eBay episode, Kosich was sill not finished with British football - nor with Tranmere Rovers, for that matter. While Dornoch faded into obsolescence, Kosich became enmeshed with Club 9 Sports, another syndicate of half-baked business consultants and acquisition facilitators based in Chicago that yearned to build a homogenous portfolio of football clubs.
In 2010, Club 9 Sports tried to buy Sheffield Wednesday, but a deal collapsed when promised funds were not forthcoming. A year later, the American firm turned its gaze on Tranmere, with Kosich acting as a conduit to Johnson. Club 9 Sports wanted to buy a controlling 60% stake in Rovers, only for negotiations to stall when Johnson considered their controlling partners to be inadequate guardians of his beloved club.
Final thoughts on the eBay infamy of Tranmere Rovers
Since the site was launched in 1995, there have been some strange things sold on eBay. A Dorito shaped like the pope’s hat went for $1,209. The meaning of life was sold for $3.26. Someone even flogged a piece of bubble gum, purportedly spat from the mouth of Britney Spears during a concert, for $14,000. There is no end to the auction insanity.
However, thanks to a victory of common sense, Tranmere Rovers does not reside in that pantheon of dubious online sales. I’m strangely proud of that fact, in a way that only the downtrodden, road-weary, battle-scarred Tranmere fan can be proud of anything so nonsensical.
Thankfully, if the Palioses are likely to place items on eBay, it will probably be unwanted cutlery from the defunct Riverhill Hotel or antique furniture from their French châteaux. They would never place the entire football club on a digital auction platform, available for purchase with one click of a button. There is a strange satisfaction in that fact, and it speaks to the incredible good fortune we have experienced amid the decade-long transformation of Tranmere Rovers.
There is always room for quirky tales like this, but they are more humorous when lacking a devastating conclusion. In reality, this football club was in a terrible state back then, and being sold on eBay seemed a fitting mode of death. Pleasingly, that ignominy never came to pass, and we currently bask in the warm absence of lunacy.
Now, if you will please excuse me, there is an auction ending soon on a Bovril-soaked teamsheet signed by Godwin Antwi. Mine is currently the highest bid.