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The European Super League: could no one predict the backlash?

Dean Currall, CEO of Verb Marketing, explains from a marketing perspective why the European Super League was always doomed for failure and ponders how no one could predict the backlash. 

Described as ‘the worst PR campaign ever’ and a ‘PR own goal’, when the European Super League hit the headlines last week, it was met with shock, anger and outrage. Unsurprisingly, it was a massive failure. As a result, on Monday it was announced that all six premier league teams involved had withdrawn. But the fallout from this announcement is huge and ongoing. From a marketing point of view, it was a disaster and has undoubtedly caused irreparable damage.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. But it did leave me with so many questions. I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘who the hell conceived this idea?’ ‘Why didn’t they tell anyone’ – even the players and managers of the teams involved knew nothing about it and were just as shocked and angry as everyone else. But most of all, ‘how did no one predict the backlash?’

Reactions to the European Super League

The announcement that 12 of the world’s biggest football clubs – Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona – had decided to break away from the sport’s governing bodies and form a ‘European Super League’ was met with huge criticism. From both inside the sporting world and beyond, there was widespread condemnation.

 

A marketing disaster

This move was insane from a marketing perspective. These clubs ignored one of the main rules of marketing – think from the customer backwards. The European Super League was the answer to a problem only the clubs owners cared about. Putting their greed above the feelings of their loyal fans, they failed to understand what it is that makes the game so beloved by fans. But on top of this, they didn’t seem to have any kind of PR or communications strategy in place when it was announced, which simply fuelled people’s anger.

Mark Borkowski, the founder of Borkowski PR who has worked with some of the biggest consumer brands, celebrities and entertainment shows, described it as, “one of the worst-planned large-scale communications launches in history.”

“The revelation wasn’t so much announced as dropped like a ballistic missile and has, both operationally and in terms of potential fallout, been a disaster for all those involved.”

So, what the hell were they thinking? And where did this idea come from?

A predictable but disappointing move

Colour mage showing a horizontal view of the Super League or European Super League teams jerseys

credit: oasisamuel / Shutterstock.com

In my eyes, this was a predictable move. Misinformed and disappointing, but not surprising. Over the years, the game has changed so much. It’s all about the money now. The average season ticket holder will spend over a thousand pound plus a year going to the match, with the price of the ticket, travel, and refreshments. Back when the Premier League started, prices were much more accessible for all. A season ticket to see Liverpool in the 1989-90 season cost around £60, now, the cheapest is £685, over a 1000% increase.

It’s not just tickets that have shot up in price either. A full kit costs around £90, but 30 years ago they were under half the price. Plus, shirts in the early 90s would be worn for at least two seasons. Now, clubs release three kits every summer for around £80-90 each. Even the old retro shirts prices have skyrocketed. Football nowadays isn’t so much about the fans and the enjoyment of the game, but about trying to monetise it and get as much out of people as they can. So, this type of thing was always going to happen.

In it for the money

Fans do have a part to play in this too. They’re always asking for the biggest, best and most expensive players. Calling for managers to be sacked if they lose 6 games in a season. I remember when Neymar secured a contract to move to PSG for a record-breaking £220 million, I just couldn’t get my head around it. It was so much money! For a single player. These clubs are paying millions to tie themselves into 5-year contracts with players who could hurt themselves two games in and no longer be able to play. But they’d still have to pay them. Where’s all this money coming from?

Take Barcelona, it was reported earlier this year that they’re rumoured to be in over £1 billion worth of debt. This may explain to some extent why these clubs decided to join. They needed the money, especially after COVID. Joining the ESL, a US franchise-style league funded by American bank JP Morgan, was a lucrative deal for them. And the fact they could never be relegated meant they’d have financial security. It was reported each founding team would receive £250-300m upfront, and in the future, they will get as much as three times as much money a season as they get from playing in other leagues such as the Champions League. Not to mention the money they could make from promotional deals and broadcasting.

Why it was always doomed to fail?

Even though I thought this was a predictable move, and I can understand why it came about, from a marketing perspective, it was a total disaster from the start. They clearly hadn’t thought about any of the fundamentals of marketing, and they went about it all the wrong way.

They removed their USP

Despite the huge changes in football over the years, the fundamentals of the game are still mostly there. The competitive nature of the sport, never knowing who will win or where your team will end up, and the feeling of your team ending up on top. The passion of the loyal fans and the fact that in every game there is always so much on the line. The European Super League would have taken so much of the magic away from it.

They forgot their target audience

Also, the club owners completely failed to understand their target audience and what it was they cared about. By completely disregarding the fans, it was always doomed for failure.

One argument was that the Super League was trying to appeal to a younger audience. This and the fact that they timed the press release to benefit a US time zone suggests their target audience was a younger, international market as opposed to the passionate long-time supporters in the UK.

British football is built on decades of culture, tradition and community. The six British teams who joined are some of the oldest, most successful, and most revered teams in the UK, with long legacies and millions of loyal fans. The idea that the owners thought they could just sell their souls to American millionaires whilst simultaneously destroying years of tradition and the very foundations on which British football is built and not face backlash is ridiculous.

Legacy fans care about the heritage, the competition, and what football stands for. For some misguided reason, the club owners believed that these fans would remain loyal even if they took all this away to make a quick buck by appealing to a younger, American audience.

They disregarded their existing fans

Sky pundit Gary Neville summed it up perfectly, saying they acted like “professional bottle merchants” trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock said the owners of the clubs involved in the European Super League must “beg for forgiveness” from the fans.

“Expect a backlash when they come to the grounds – rightly so because you’ve gone against the fans. You’ve thought they wanted to go a certain way without consulting them.

“It’s been abysmal the way it was handled. You’re seeing the power of the fans.”

The club owners failed to think about was that no club is bigger than or successful without its fans. The thing is, if they wanted to expand their audience, they could’ve done so without aggravating their existing fans. In marketing, people often appeal to different audiences whilst retaining their existing consumers.

They didn’t discuss the plans with their own people  

The fact that no one discussed the plans with anyone, including managers, players, other clubs and governing bodies was another huge PR mistake. The managers and players found out when everyone else did, so they were caught off-guard when questioned by the press.

This resulted in many players and managers speaking out in anger against their own clubs. And this simply fuelled the negativity online and in the press. They should’ve spoken to their people first and got them on board, or at least pre-warned them, so they weren’t left dumbfounded and confused.

If they had a strategy in place and had managed to present this in a more positive way, maybe it would have gone down better. At the very least, they could’ve avoided the huge backlash from top players and managers openly slating their bosses’ actions online and on live TV.

The messaging was all wrong

Finally, the messaging behind the ESL was all wrong. When speaking to Sky Sports, a board member of one of the ‘super six’ clubs said the owners of the clubs’ view is that their “primary job is to maximise our revenues and profits. The wider good of the game is a secondary concern.”

From the start, all the messaging sung of nothing but greed. Football is a sport created by working-class people, for working-class people. So, the fans were never going to get behind something that went against everything they stand for. In marketing, your messaging should always appeal to your customer. But it seems those involved in the ESL didn’t consider this for even a second.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said the footballing world was “united against the disgraceful, self-serving proposals we have seen, fuelled purely by greed.”

The idea that these clubs decided to break away without discussing it with anyone else or thinking about the effects it would have on British football and the system which has been built up over decades to provide even the smallest of football clubs with funds and the opportunity to compete alongside the leading teams in the country, is insane. And after the year we have all been through, so many on furlough or losing their jobs, businesses struggling, and low league football teams barely hanging on, this was a completely tone-deaf decision.

A complete PR disaster

It is undeniable that this was a terrible marketing and PR decision. There didn’t seem to be any kind of strategy or planning surrounding this announcement. Maybe if they had taken some time to consider the marketing fundamentals, it would’ve gone a different way. Instead, with a single announcement, they managed to turn the whole football world against them. How could they not have seen this coming?

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