What can we learn from the rise & fall of the Super League
By Nicc Lewis - CEO Expozive Marketing & Marcom
Within the space of 48 hours 12 teams across Europe announced a breakaway Super League, were condemned from every quarter and 6 pulled out, leaving plans in tatters and the remaining teams suspending the league. The news took over front pages of papers and made headline TV news around the globe and there are many Marketing lessons we can learn.
Where did the boards go wrong? How and what did they miscalculate? Was it consumer power that led to the ultimate downfall or something else? What role did Social Media and traditional media play? How should the clubs and their boards react to rebuild their communities and fans' trust. Are there any winners in this apparent PR disaster? Who could be the biggest losers? How did one club use the uproar entirely for their own good?
Just look at the questions above and the links to Marketing are obvious: PR, Communities, Social Media, Agile Marketing, disaster recovery … There are valuable lessons to be learned from this story and much we can apply to any business including recovering from a faux pas and managing industries with complex and difficult public perception such as finance, gaming / gambling, Cryptocurrencies, health and the list goes on.
In case you were born in a bubble...
On 18th April 2021, 12 clubs from Spain, England and Italy each announced that they had formed a European Super League that they would compete in and run in place of UEFA’s European Champions League and Europa League competitions. The founding 12 clubs that would run the organisation were: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus. The announced that a further 3 clubs would join as permanent members and the competition would be joined each year by a further 5 teams based on qualification.
A board headed by Real Madrid President, Florentino Pérez and including members from Manchester United, Juventus, Liverpool and Arsenal was put in place with initial backing of $6 billion from American Bankers JPMorgan Chase. Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all have American owners and the closed format is reminiscent of NFL, NBA and NHL.
The initial announcement made it clear that that the teams involved continue to play in their national leagues and that the Super League would be a mid week competition in place of the UEFA run competitions where teams qualify based on their position in their respective national leagues.
The apparent plan was that on paper this all seemed reasonable and logical, the new competition would ensure revenues for the permanent members while being able to leverage the Asian Markets. The clubs would expect some backlash, especially from UEFA who would be the biggest losers, but fans would be won over by the prospect of seeing their teams a guarantee of seeing them play against the very best teams in Europe every year. All the clubs needed to do was stand firm, ride out the initial storm and everything would be fine. Legally, there was nothing UEFA or the domestic leagues could do, so from the moment it was announced it was just a matter of how quickly the last 3 permanent members would sign and they would start.
The cracks in the plan were already in place long before the very public reversal of all 6 English teams on 20th April 2021. Two of Europe’s giant clubs, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, declined to sign up. From the moment the league was announced the backlash was huge.
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin responded by condemning the league (as expected) and threatened to immediately eliminate the participating teams from the current season’s semi finals of the Champions League (handing the trophy to PSG while eliminating Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City) and the quarter finals (including Arsenal and Manchester United) and banning players from the clubs from participating in the summer’s international Euro competition (very much unexpected). The British Prime Minister also condemned the league and vowed to find a way to punish the English teams including declining work visas for foriegn players. The English Premier League also condemned the clubs and the remaining 14 teams voting on whether to expel the clubs from the league.
The fans mobilized using Social Media to organize mass protests. First was Liverpool who played Leeds on 19th April followed by Chelsea on 20th April in their home game against Brighton. At Stamford Bridge thousands block the roads not allowing the team bus to pass. Former player and Technical Director Petr Cech had to disembark the bus and talk to fans in order to let the bus pass and the game kicked off 15 minutes late.
Earlier in the day there had been reports that both Manchester City and Chelsea were reluctant to sign up for the Super League in the first place. The head coaches of both Liverpool and Manchester City had publicly denounced the plans for the Super League and some of the players were hinting displeasure on their Social Media accounts.
During the game between Chelsea and Brighton Hove Albion both Chelsea and Manchester City announced they were reversing their decision to enter the Super League, Manchester United Vice-Chairman announced his resignation. By the end of the evening all 6 English clubs had announced their withdrawal. The remaining 6 European teams announced a suspension of the league.
Background complete, let’s get on with the Marketing lessons we can learn.
PR Losers, Losers & Winners?
On the face of it this looks like a total PR nightmare. Club owners have been portrayed as money grabbing, greedy and totally out of touch with the fans and the sport. The debacle has already apparently cost Ed Woodward, Vice-Chairman of Manchester United, his job and predictions as of writing this article on the morning of April 21th are that more heads will roll. Obviously the owners cannot be fired or encouraged to resign, but backlash from fans and media look set to continue and this even before fans have been allowed back into stadiums in the wake of COVID-19.
All 6 English clubs tried to move quickly in order to save some face but this may not be enough after a catastrophic miscalculation. How could there possibly be any winners in this PR disaster?
Chelsea were the first to break ranks signaling their intention to leave after a meeting between Chairman Bruce Buck and the players in the afternoon of April 20th. They were followed very quickly by Manchester City. Roman Abramovic and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, owners of the respective clubs, would appear to have a way to win back fans and public image by being the first teams to admit making an error. They had both already let it be known that they were more reluctant members of the Super League earlier. Both could actually leverage PR to come out very well.
The other 4 clubs have much harder work to do. They will be seen as following suit rather than leading the reversal. Certainly the American owners of Arsenal (Stan Kroenke), Liverpool (Fenway Sports Group), and Manchester United (Malcom and Joel Glazer) are all still facing huge negative sentiments from fans and media for their roles. The resignation of Ed Woodward has done little to avert the condemnation of Manchester United’s owners.
Oddly, Real Madrid’s President, Florentino Pérez has also built a PR image of strength standing firm against UEFA despite condemnation of the plan and conversely UEFA President, Aleksander Čeferin, has come out appearing weak and toothless despite the withdrawal of the 6 English clubs. It appears that it was the fans and not his threats that reversed their decisions.
PR Award for Ingenuity goes to Tottenham owner Daniel Levy who managed to fire his Head Coach, Jose Mourinho undercover by announcing the sacking hours after the announcement of the Super League and the press was busy elsewhere.
The way back for the 6 English clubs is to be human and admit mistakes. If it is sincere the public does forgive. Pointless token sackings or remote statements will not appease the public - the owners need to engage personally with the fans and the public as soon as possible.
Proof of Consumer Power?
On face value it would appear to be a triumph for Consumer Power. The fans and public are the consumers of the product, football. They generate the volumes and therefore the revenues via tickets, merchandise and TV deals. Mass protests and indignation surely was the main driving force behind the decision to back pedal.
There is a story between the lines which may have been overlooked - the reaction of the coaches and players. We have already seen that after Bruce Buck met the players and staff Chelsea indicated their withdrawal. Pep Guardiola and the Manchester City players were also vociferous in their opposition to the Super League very publicly. The threat of losing their prime assets was just as much a risk to their revenues as the fans. Employer Branding is a strong trend as not only does it help in recruitment but also motivated and loyal staff build trust with the consumers - if the staff are happy it must be a good company.
Consumer Power had a role to play, especially with the 4 clubs who announced their withdrawal after Chelsea and Manchester City, but other factors must be taken into consideration.
For argument's sake, let us imagine a scenario where the players and coaching staff backed the proposals fully advocating that this was the future of football. The legal teams were confident they could fight the EPL (English Premier League), UEFA and FIFA. Would the fans have been enough to overturn their participation? I am not sure.
Was there a gross miscalculation on part of the clubs in Super League in the extent of public outrage or even the resistance of their own staff? Outside England the answer appears to be not as the remaining 6 teams appear to be standing firm. There was a legal calculation that apparently holds water; UEFA, FIFA and the domestic leagues also appear powerless and left with only strong rhetoric.
In England the current Premier League is a breakaway league from the National League that at the time was going to spell the end of English football. UEFA themselves have made numerous changes including concessions to FIFA to enable a Club World Cup. Breakaways seem to be an historical fact right from the very beginning. Early football was the dominion of the upper classes in England in the late 19th century. It was the introduction of the world’s first professional players, Suter and Love, in 1878 by a working class team in order to compete for the FA Cup that broke traditions and rules to found the modern game.
There were two main miscalculations: the reactions of their own staff, and the opposition to a closed style league similar to American sports. One overlooked fact is that the bottom teams in the USA get first picks in a draft the following year to even any gaps. What was proposed was a format that would have no real level of competition and therefore negate the very foundation of the soul of the game - the reason players play and fans follow.
In Marketing, rule number one: know your audience! Part of this is to know what drives them, where the interest lies and what makes a buying decision. Lose the connection with your buyers, you lose your Market.
The power of Social Media and come even more into the fore following these events. Fans used Social Media to organize their protest both online and in planning physical demonstrations. Club staff used their Social Media channels to indicate their reservations. Interestingly, traditional media appeared to be led by what was happening on Social Media - a trend we are seeing more and more.
For any Marketer, the importance of growing and engaging with your community on Social Media should be a bedrock foundation for telling your brand story. It is also the place to gauge sentiment and manage your brand reputation.
The events surrounding the European Super League have highlighted many trends in modern Marketing and we have not even covered the importance of Agile Marketing. Lessons can be learnt by everyone regardless of your field or industry.