It is safe to assume the failed launch of a European Super League (ESL) by 12 football clubs will soon have a chapter in the book of PR fiascos.
It is hard to recall an announcement that has been so successful in uniting opposition against itself as this power play, which collapsed within 48 hours.
While it could be argued the toxic content of the ESL proposal meant it was destined to fail, the project’s ham-fisted approach to PR contributed to its demise by woefully misjudging the audience and failing to deploy basic principles of comms and stakeholder management.
The list of errors covers everything from the timing of the announcement to arrogant tone and impersonal content.
Leaks on Sunday afternoon meant the clubs lost early control of the narrative as fans and pundits weighed in with unchallenged criticism.
A press release at midnight failed to wrestle back control and the refusal to field a spokesperson reinforced the faceless nature of the venture and resulted in the unthinkable scenario of an article on the Liverpool FC website featuring a comment from Joel Glazer, the co-chairman of bitter rivals Manchester United.
Despite the wall of criticism, many felt the clubs would get their way, and in Monday’s Football Writers’ Podcast, Darren Lewis of The Mirror said: “There is a futility to the fight against it. I think it’s going to happen.”
Opening the floodgates
The turning point came that evening in Liverpool’s game against Leeds United, when Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and player James Milner – during a Sky Sports interview (watch it above) – opposed the proposal and confirmed they had known nothing about it.
The incident revealed a glaring error of stakeholder management by the clubs, which had obviously neglected to brief key employees before going public.
Klopp and Milner’s willingness to defy their bosses opened the floodgates as managers and players from other ESL clubs began to follow suit.
On Tuesday evening Manchester City became the first English club to quit the ESL and by midnight all six had left the sinking ship.
It had been a fiasco from start to finish. And though the controversial nature of the ESL proposal meant it was bound to face opposition, the mishandling of communications had undeniably inflamed the situation and contributed to its rapid collapse.
Not having spokespeople who could shape the narrative allowed space for others, including politicians and royalty, to enter the argument. Battle lines emerged that had a silent collection of billionaires, sheikhs and plutocrats on one side and everyone else on the other.
At the same time, a failure to manage key stakeholders, particularly players and managers, critically undermined the club-owners’ plans.
The episode may have only lasted 48 hours, but the ramifications may be felt for some time.
Many view the spectacular backdwn by the 'Super Six' as a victory for fan power. Chelsea fans celebrated their club's U-turn outside Stamford Bridge stadium this week (Photo: Getty Images)
What happens next?
The reputations of all six clubs have been tarnished and they face a battle to rebuild trust with fans and the wider public.
Manchester United and Liverpool have most work to do, given the jarring contradiction between their leading role in the ESL and their previous pronouncements on the central importance of togetherness and heritage in their identity. Both clubs have large followings outside their cities, yet may find themselves a less appealing prospect to new fans in future.
The impact on the appeal of the clubs overseas is unlikely to be affected. The ESL was partly driven by a desire to give football fans in the Far East and US greater access to the teams and, although it turned into an embarrassing failure, the incident is unlikely to harm their capacity to thrive in these markets.
Fan groups at home may hope to emerge stronger, but the Government’s proposed fan-led review of football is unlikely to give them what they want. It means those described as ‘legacy fans’ in the ESL plan will probably have to content themselves with walking away or organising “Love United, hate the Glazers”-style protests and making life difficult for the owners when they try to raise ticket prices.
Perhaps the biggest outcome may be a rise in player activism. Marcus Rashford has shown what this can achieve and the central role of the players in curtailing the ESL may lead more to consider how they can use their platforms to support causes that matter to them.
And as the owners lick their wounds after neglecting to inform the players of their plans to revolutionise the game, the failure of the ESL may cause them to reflect on where the real power lies.
Lee Murgatroyd is the managing director of sports PR agency Point Communications and worked in Team GB's comms team at the Rio Olympic Games