By Mitchell Collier
Monday morning Australian time news erupted that reverberated across the sporting world.
15 of Europe’s largest football (soccer) clubs from England, Italy and Spain announced that they had agreed to create a ‘European Super League’ (ESL) that would start ‘as soon as practicable’. There would be six teams from England including Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal, along with three each from Italy and Spain.
But it was the hostile reaction from England and supporters of its league from across the world that saw this concept dead, buried and cremated within 48 hours. Below we explore why this will go down as one of the all-time great media and communications disasters.
For those not familiar with the landscape of European football, each country across Europe has its own domestic league. On top of this sits a continental competition known as the ‘Champions League’.
The Champions League is overseen by UEFA (the governing body of European football) with each domestic league entitled to a quota (the number differs from league to league) of teams determined by league position. For example, the teams that finish 1st to 4th in the English Premier League for a season qualify to play in the Champions League the following year.
It’s worth big money - merely qualifying for the tournament sees a club pocket around 15 million pounds before a ball is even kicked. A team then receives more prize money if they progress further into the competition. Money earned by a club can then be invested into expenditure items such as the purchase of new players, improved training facilities, stadium renovations or paying off debt.
The 15 rebel clubs were effectively attempting to create a rival competition to the Champions League, but with fewer teams and each one being permanent members. This would also mean more money, a lot more money. With some of the biggest sporting brands in the world involved, the astronomical television audiences from across the globe would see the ESL rake in billions of dollars to be divvied up amongst the 15 members.
It’s rare for a reaction to an announcement to be both scathing and universal - this achieved that. The media, commentators, politicians, members of the Royal family and, crucially, fans across the world were unified in their condemnation of the rebel clubs.
Even people with strong connections to the clubs involved were incensed. Gary Neville - a lifelong Manchester United fan and former club captain - unleashed a volley of criticism that seemed to resonate with fans of all clubs. On Sunday afternoon, in a live rant broadcast to millions of Brits while having their family Sunday Roast, an impassioned Neville barked that he was ‘disgusted’ with his club and slammed the actions of all involved as ‘criminal’ (Watch here: https://news.sky.com/video/european-super-league-gary-neville-disgusted-with-manchester-utd-over-breakaway-plan-12280087).
The chief criticism of the rebels was that they were motivated by greed. Each of the founding ESL clubs would receive an upfront payment of 3.5 billion euros. On top of this it was argued in England that the new league would permanently and adversely affect English football. The six participating English clubs were willing to put their own self-interest above that of the other 86 clubs across the four tiers of English football. The national game would be permanently scarred.
A media and comms disaster
While everyone from TV pundits through to Prince William were trashing each of the rebels, along with the ESL concept generally, there was radio silence from the hierarchies behind the bombshell announcement. It should be noted that each of the six English owners are some of the most successful, and indeed richest, businesspeople in the world. They’re hardly people with low IQs, but it should also be underlined that each generally keep a low media profile.
This is key to understanding how this proposed league was dead within 48 hours of its announcement - no one was out selling the reason why it was needed (if one exists). In the absence of those who orchestrated the ESL selling their message and justifying their actions, a void was left which was filled with wall to wall criticism from those who opposed it.
What also emerged was that the players and coaches of each respective club had been kept out of the loop. The concept was never sold internally, never mind to the rest of the footballing public. Obviously no stakeholder strategy was in place.
Clearly, each of the colluding owners failed to anticipate the storm that would erupt and therefore failed to lay the groundwork to ensure they were on the front foot the moment news broke of the new league. What makes it all the more incredible is that, to a large extent, all the clubs involved had control over when the story would break so can hardly claim being caught off-guard.
After a 48-hour deluge of withering abuse, which by this point had escalated to fan protests in the streets, the rebel league died a sudden death. One by one each of the English clubs made formal announcements that they were withdrawing their support for the ESL.
This case study highlights the importance of getting out in front of a story to set the narrative before others do. Although, given the instant visceral reaction across the world, it’s highly likely this new league would have been killed off anyway the fact the clubs involved weren’t selling the concept ensured the whole thing was dead on arrival. Moreover, many pundits and fans are now pointing to the poorly handled PR fiasco as evidence of incompetence from each of the owners and citing this as reason for them all to be run out of English football.
The rebel clubs had figured out the who, what, when and where with regards to the ESL. But the one thing they failed to address what the ‘why’ - which is also the most important ‘W’. And that’s why they failed. Miserably.