Comms lessons from the European Super League’s short existence

A look back at what went awry in 12 clubs’ board rooms can inform practically all PR campaigns.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).
(Photo credit: Getty Images).

The collapse of the European Super League commanded headlines across the world.

Soccer, better known as football outside the U.S., is one of the largest sports businesses, packed with international stars famous around the world. However, the events shaping the ESL’s downfall are a fierce reminder that football clubs will always be, to some extent, local affairs and communal assets. The league’s failure serves as a stern prompt for leaders to identify, understand and never underestimate the influence of united stakeholders.

A look back at what went awry can inform practically all PR campaigns.

Frame the problem before proposing a solution

Despite claiming ad nauseum that its revenue model would bring greater benefits to the football pyramid than the Union of European Football Associations, the ESL never clearly explained how this alternative model would benefit lower-league sports organizations. 

This led to three suboptimal developments: media attention shifted to revenue distribution within the ESL, which catalyzed accusations of greed; non-ESL clubs condemned the idea, using COVID-19 economic impacts on sports as evidence for their concerns; as the incumbent authority, UEFA benefited from being viewed as purveying traditional values, respecting the past and maintaining meritocracy.

These factors set the wrong tone for the ESL from its outset.

Plan for adverse events

ESL executives seemingly failed to anticipate the mass rejection from fans, media, non-ESL clubs, industry governing bodies and political leaders.

Had organizers mapped out a variety of adverse scenarios, the group could have customized responses for groups and defend against reputational damage. Notably, when critics argued the league defied meritocracy, a fundamental principle in sports and most societies, the ESL offered no counterargument. 

Public projects need a relatable face and voice

Business leaders in 2021 are now accountable, speaking up on important issues. Despite this trend, the ESL lacked a relatable brand identity or singular voice. No former players or industry icons within ESL leadership leveraged existing credibility with football fans to engage them in direct dialogue or harness a positive response. The ESL’s communications, limited to a few written statements, came across as cold, indirect and insincere.

Never neglect internal communications 

A negative theme of players and coaching staff caught off-guard by the announcement rippled across coverage. Uninformed representatives had to face the media within hours of the news breaking. The questionable, inconvenient timing, late on a Sunday evening and without much notice, raised eyebrows.

At its formation, the ESL should have included key constituents in the discussions. Failure to do so fractured loyalties within the organization, invited public criticism, fed a sense of underhandedness and ensured the narrative drifted further beyond its control.

Final thoughts

In its short existence, the ESL triggered combustible outrage, and public consensus canceled it before it could even begin. It bruised stakeholder relationships for many years to come.

The ESL’s rollout provides a valuable case study for all strategic communications professionals. It points to key tenets when proposing change: know your external audiences, seek to understand their needs, explain how your offering benefits them, nail your messaging and narrative -- two separate workflows -- anticipate vulnerabilities and prepare game plans accordingly.

Last, but certainly not least, never neglect those closest to you. Once the internal circle of trust is broken, it’s a long road back to recovery.  

Aidan O’Connor is an associate VP at Prosek Partners and a strategic adviser to Zone7, an AI-based athlete performance platform. 

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in