There are so many lessons for communicators, marketers and brand owners in last week’s ill-fated attempted launch of soccer’s European Super League.
Eight of the biggest clubs in Europe, as well as Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, tried to break away and form their own closed-shop competition in stealth mode and circumvent existing structures and competitions.
Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan were the other high-profile teams in England, Spain and Italy that announced they were breaking off from the existing football hierarchies to form their own European Super League (ESL).
This closed shop version of the Champions League would see these “super clubs” keeping a larger share of revenues and broadcast rights and set in motion repercussions that threatened the very core of the sport.
A U.S.-style model with no relegation and member clubs guaranteed participation season after season, no matter how badly they performed, ran contrary to the very competitive spirit of the sport.
The owners weren’t satisfied with the rich pickings they are already taking out of the world’s most popular sport – they wanted a bigger share of the pie.
They showed disdain for what they term “legacy supporters” – loyal customers in branding terms – and were seduced by the exploding global popularity of the game with new fans who have never been to a match in person and probably never will.
The launch was handled appallingly, partly because the story was broken by the Times of London the Sunday before last and the participants had to cobble together a garbled announcement that was released later that evening.
The backlash was swift and brutal, with the initiative managing to achieve the impossible in uniting the passionate fans of traditionally bitter rivals in a common cause.
It also united European and global football governing bodies UEFA and FIFA and the national leagues of the countries whose clubs were planning to join the ESL, as well as fans, players, other clubs and countries such as Germany and France where teams had declined to join the initial group of teams announced.
German football has a 50+1 ownership rule that means fans hold majority voting rights at clubs. Teams are not allowed to compete in German competitions if private investors hold more than a 49% stake. Hence, German soccer giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund declined to join the ESL. This 50+1 model has all of a sudden become a rallying cry for fans of many clubs in England and across Europe.
UEFA and FIFA struck back swiftly and strongly, annoyed the participating clubs in the ESL had assured them only days before that they were on board with some impending amends to the Champions League and other existing European competitions.
The players – the “product” if you like – hadn’t been consulted and weren’t happy with threats of not being able to participate in national leagues and to play for their countries.
The British government sniffed an opportunity to latch on to a populist cause and threatened to sanction the deal to “protect the national game.”
Within three days the recalcitrant clubs had scattered and scuttled away ignominiously with their tails between their legs, displaying some awful crisis communications messaging, pitiful apologies and poor reputation management along the way. The ESL fell apart before it started. At least for the time being - there is no guarantee it won’t reemerge in another format in the future.
Manchester United’s CEO Ed Woodward, a prime mover behind the ESL and a former executive at JPMorgan, which was underwriting the new league and also ended up apologizing, announced he would be stepping down from his CEO role at the end of the year, claiming the timing was purely coincidental.
The co-chairman of United and proposed vice-chairman of the ESL, Joel Glazer, released the most excruciating apology/statement to supporters, the first time his family had communicated with fans since they took over the club in 2005.
It was a lesson in how not to do public relations.
“Although the wounds are raw and I understand that it will take time for the scars to heal, I am personally committed to rebuilding trust with our fans and learning from the message you delivered with such conviction,” said Glazer, though it's unlikely he actually had much to do with the statement. Fans pointed out that Glazer and his family never had the trust of the fans and likely never will.
“In seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game, we failed to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions – promotion, relegation, the pyramid – and for that we are sorry,” added Glazer. Fans noted he had never shown respect for the traditions of the club and the only thing he was sorry about was the fact he wouldn’t be able to maximize his financial returns from his cash cow even more.
“We also realize that we need to better communicate with you, our fans, because you will always be at the heart of the club,” he said. Given this was the first direct communication from Glazer and his family in 15 years, the fans won’t be holding their breath.
“This is the world’s greatest football club” was probably the only part of the statement both parties agreed with. Indeed, if there’s one brand that has impacted my life more than any other it’s my football club – and that club is Manchester United.
Hooked at the age of five, like many kids courtesy of my dad’s affiliation that he passed on to me, the club has been responsible for multiple emotional rollercoasters over the past decades, producing some of the highest highs and lowest lows in my life.
In truth, it’s probably taken on too much meaning on occasions, impacting relationships, mental health and career prospects to a larger extent than it should have. But it also produced some of the most sustained friendships and human experiences, ones I will value and treasure forever.
For a few days last week I thought this fundamental piece of my DNA was going to disappear. I am not alone in this. Millions of Brits share this obsession with football.
As do people from countries all around the world who follow this truly global game, whether they are from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia and dozens of other countries including, increasingly in recent times, the U.S.A.
When I first visited America in the 1980s it was nigh on impossible to follow soccer games. On weekends I found myself seeking out dodgy Irish pubs with tricky satellite dishes at silly hours in the morning or tracking down Spanish language channels that might show the odd English game.
Nowadays, such is the reach of the English Premier League (EPL) and other European national competitions, you can watch more soccer in the States than you can in your home country. An average weekend features wall-to-wall games from England and other European leagues pretty much all day Saturday and Sunday.
NBC’s coverage has taken the popularity of the EPL to a new level and, pre-COVID, its fan festivals around the country attracted thousands of passionate American and ex-pat supporters to watch games, celebrate together and drink in the unique atmosphere of communal football watching.
Global brands took note. Manchester United is just coming to the end of a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with GM’s Chevrolet that netted it a world record £64 million a year starting in 2014, tapping into what the club now describes as 1 billion fans and followers around the world.
Foreign owners also smelled money in the soccer hills.
In 2005, United was acquired by Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer in a highly leveraged reverse takeover deal that saddled the club with massive debt from loans provided by American hedge funds at crippling interest rates.
By 2010, the club had gone from having no debt pre-Glazers to debts exceeded £716.5 million, which was refinanced by issuing bonds that were used to pay down outstanding debts. The Glazers have taken out over £1 billion from the club during their 15 years of ownership.
Liverpool is owned by Fenway Sports Group, which includes the Boston Red Sox in its portfolio. Arsenal’s owner is U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke, who also numbers the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Rapids among his sports portfolio.
Chelsea is owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Manchester City is majority owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
Only Spurs – Tottenham Hotspur – are British-owned, with Bahamian-based billionaire Joe Lewis the majority shareholder.
It’s all a far cry from the roots of the game. Manchester United was formed in 1878 by a group of railway workers. It was originally called Newton Heath and took on its current name in 1902.
Many other clubs had similar beginnings. The 92 league clubs throughout the four professional tiers of the English game all represent communities and have strong ties locally. They are part of the fabric of towns and cities.
Generations of fans have followed their teams through thick and thin. They are the so-called "pyramid" the ESL clubs claimed they were ultimately trying to help to justify their egregious behavior.
United bounced back from having its Old Trafford ground bombed during the Second World War. Under the leadership of Sir Matt Busby, the club somehow revived itself after the tragic Munich air disaster of 1958 that killed eight players traveling back from a European tie in what was regarded as one of the best young teams ever to take the field. Busby and club legend Bobby Charlton, who is still alive today, survived the crash.
After winning the European Cup in 1968 and finally achieving Busby’s dream, United declined and were relegated to the second tier of English football in the early 70s. By the late 80s a young manager call Alex Ferguson came on board and built the finest dynasty in English football history, winning 38 trophies in 26 years, including 13 Premier League titles.
There's no doubt there are problems with football's infrastructure. And UEFA, FIFA and national governing bodies are anything but perfect. But the rogue ESL can’t erase such inbred history over a casual weekend announcement. The overseers of these brands are just temporary custodians, not absolute owners.
To a man, and they were all men, they ignored the basic tenets of employee engagement, purposeful business, communicating with your customer base and proactively engaging important stakeholder groups.
The two most successful clubs in English football history and arguably the two biggest soccer brands in the world – Manchester United and Liverpool – face off on Sunday at an empty Theatre of Dreams stadium in Manchester courtesy of COVID-19 restrictions.
The lack of atmosphere at a game that is eagerly anticipated every season and that Fenway Sports Group minority investor LeBron James once described as “one of the single best experiences” of his life will be eerie.
That's not to say American sports fans aren't passionate about their teams, of course they are. But go to United vs. Liverpool, Celtic vs. Rangers, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, AC Milan vs. Inter Milan and the buzz is something else.
“The excitement these fans have is like no other,” added James. And on Sunday they will be desperate for their respective team to win on the pitch.
But this time there will be thousands of fans demonstrating outside the ground in an attempt to force the respective owners to sell up and return ownership to the people and others who understand the true value of “legacy fans” and loyal consumers. To adopt a German 50+1 model if possible.
The would-be founders of the European Super League have underestimated the power of the powerful brands they temporarily oversee and opened the door to a whole new era of customer-led activism that could change a unique industry and bastion of society forever.