The 'Super League Six' – rating the rogue football clubs' crisis comms

The owners of the ‘Super League Six’ clubs who threatened to join a breakaway league before U-turning have done little to enhance their reputations, but how well did they score for crisis comms? The PRWeek team have passed their verdicts on each club.

Chelsea FC

First of all I declare an interest, as a lifelong and fourth-generation Chelsea fan. The club's reputation suffered a little less than some, being one of the latter signatories to the ESL. And from the beginning the club made (background briefing) noises that it had joined 'reluctantly' for fear of being left out. That doesn't absolve the owner (Roman Abramovich) or the chairman (Bruce Buck) of blame, however. This project was always a tone-deaf fool's errand, and someone should have spotted this earlier.

Abramovich has done a lot for Chelsea: he has invested billions of his own money over nearly 20 years; he has brought massive success on the pitch; and recently he's improved his own comms/reputation by actively tackling racism, investing in women's football and a number of community initiatives. He even said in a Forbes interview last month that Chelsea FC would go on as a successful institution way beyond him. One still thinks that if the club had really listened to its comms professionals, staff and players that it would have dodged the ESL this time.

On Tuesday CFC did the right thing by being the first club to brief the media that it was pulling out. I would still like to have seen an abject apology as well, which wasn't forthcoming at the time of writing.

Rating: 4/10 

PRWeek EMEA editor-in-chief, Danny Rogers

 

Manchester City FC

Like the other club (Chelsea) with an unfair reputation of being 'new money' – both clubs actually have long and distinguished histories at the heart of their native cities – Man City does not appear to be among the core drivers of the ill-fated ESL project. Indeed, the Abu Dhabi-backed club really doesn't need the riches promised by the ESL.

More important, surely, is City's reputation as a supporter-focused, community-based club. This is a comms message that has worked well in recent years. Even Gary Neville, despite wearing the wrong colour Manchester shirt, speaks highly of City's investment in this great northern city, the club having built a brilliant academy, leisure complex and completely regenerated this side of Manchester. 

So again one wonders why the club's leaders and comms people didn't baulk at the ESL presented to them by American-backed clubs. Again like Chelsea, City was quick to bail out on Tuesday. It, too, has so far failed to apologise. Some credit should go to the team's manager, Pep Guardiola, for speaking out against the ESL on Tuesday – presumably with the backing of the club.

Rating: 4/10

PRWeek EMEA editor-in-chief, Danny Rogers

 

Tottenham Hotspur FC

Die-hard Arsenal supporters aside, anyone would have sympathy for Tottenham Hotspur's comms team in recent days, given the ESL crisis coinciding with the sacking of manager Jose Mourinho (and last week's bizarre mocking of the club by new its sponsor, Dulux). But the club fell well short of its North London rival in its response to the U-turn on the new competition.

“We regret the anxiety and upset caused by the ESL proposal," said chairman Daniel Levy, in a statement notable for the absence of an actual apology.

"We felt it was important that our club participated in the development of a possible new structure that sought to better ensure financial fair play and financial sustainability whilst delivering significantly increased support for the wider football pyramid."

The missive has the style of a clunky corporate statement, rather than what was needed: a heartfelt message to fans.

“We believe that we should never stand still and that the sport should constantly review competitions and governance to ensure the game we all love continues to evolve and excite fans around the world," the statement said, before concluding: “We should like to thank all those supporters who presented their considered opinions.”

Rating: 2/10, with one mark for sympathy after the Dulux episode

PRWeek UK editor, John Harrington

 

Arsenal FC

The North London club gave a reasonably decent performance under the circumstances.

On Tuesday evening, the club posted a tweet with a short apology and a link to a full statement on its website:

The language in the statement is careful but empathetic. "It was never our intention to cause such distress [to supporters]", it says. "However when the invitation to join the Super League came, while knowing there were no guarantees, we did not want to be left behind to ensure we protected Arsenal and its future."

The point about being "left behind" is possibly more powerful for Arsenal than most of the other 'big six' clubs, given it's in real danger of losing pace with the Premier League elite in a footballing capacity.

The statement – attributed to "The Board" – concludes: "Our aim is always to make the right decisions for this great football club, to protect it for the future and to take us forward. We didn’t make the right decision here, which we fully accept. We have heard you."

While the tone is fine, it would have benefited from more detail. What could have been the impact of not joining the Super League on, for example, jobs at the club or its ability to sign top players? Such information may have helped generate more sympathy for Arsenal's decision.

Rating: 6/10

PRWeek UK editor, John Harrington

 

Liverpool FC

“You’ll never walk alone” – until the owners do. “This means more” – until the owners say it doesn’t. As a devoted Liverpool supporter for most of my life, it is difficult to reconcile with the owners – Fenway Sports Group (FSG) – wanting to turn their back on the Champions League, a competition in which this club has a storied history. But what really grates is how the owners made a massively consequential decision about Liverpool’s legacy without consulting their most important stakeholders: the fans, players and coaching staff.

This isn’t the first misstep by FSG (wanting to raise ticket prices, copyright the ‘Liverpool’ name and furlough staff) and it recovered previously with doses of  humility. But this – radio silence until the concept collapsed because of other clubs’ actions, letting the manager and players cop the flak from the baying media and public at Leeds – feels different. Thrust in a crisis, the owners took way too long to front up and take ownership of the crisis, leaving others to fill a void they apparently had not been well briefed about.

FSG founder and principal owner John W Henry’s apology appeared heartfelt and he admitted in his statement that he had let fans down. It struck the right tone and appears genuine, but I suspect many fans are starting to question the owners’ motives with the club.

Liverpool players have been excellent, sharing their views and sending a strong public message to the owners. Manager Jurgen Klopp has also played it reasonably well, although his attack on player-turned-Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville missed the mark.

The owners have been good custodians of the club to date, but the way they handled the past weekend has certainly tarnished how fans might view them. Henry needs to be more proactive in engaging with the fans in the long journey toward restoring trust.

Rating: 3/10 

PRWeek UK news editor, Arvind Hickman

 

Manchester United FC

If we include the club’s past players (especially Gary Neville), United’s role in this fiasco would look better. But the reality is that co-chairman Joel Glazer was very much driving this – he was quoted in the original Super League statement. On that front, he gets a point for owning up to the initial decision when other club bosses wouldn’t, and another for eventually apologising.

In most other aspects, United has been poor. The club’s initial three-sentence statement was cold and lacked contrition. Significantly, it wasn’t signed by any of the Glazers – unlike the Super League launch statement – leaving a feeling that the climbdown was forced, rather than a genuine realisation they had got it wrong. Glazer issued his own statement, a decent attempt to signal mistakes were made and that he promised to rebuild trust.

Where the club has been strong is through players past and present – including Neville, Eric Cantona, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw. Club legend Sir Alex Ferguson also shared his views, placing further pressure on the owners. Neville, in particular, has been a leading light in the push against the Super League, speaking powerfully, with passion and conviction, on Sky Sports.

The club deserves some credit for that, but some fans will be left wondering why those in charge left them out in the cold for so long. Either way, the owners of the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ massively let down their most important patrons. 

Rating: 4/10

PRWeek UK news editor, Arvind Hickman

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