How not to launch a consumer initiative – The Super League

28th April 2021


Most consumer businesses would fork out a decade’s marketing and communications budget for the attention the “launch” of the European Super League received in one week alone. Unfortunately for Messrs Perez, Glazer, Henry and the rest of the founding clubs’ owners and leaders, it is hard to recall a consumer initiative brought to its knees so rapidly and emphatically, and this despite its ostensible objective of giving consumers more of the product they love, more regularly.

No communication plan can ensure the successful landing of a terrible idea, but the Super League’s organisers none-the-less scored multiple own-goals in a 48 hour period which turned an impossible sell into an historic and extremely damaging humiliation.

It is a brave adviser who would say, having seen all the opprobrium of the past week that this was a winnable war, but undoubtedly the European game has some deep-seated problems for which solutions will ultimately need to be found, and the leading football clubs in the most powerful leagues should expect (or at least should have, before this debacle) to play a major role in finding them. The sport has reason to worry that its aging fan base is not being replenished by young blood at a pace which can sustain long-term growth; the pandemic has left the financial positions of football clubs right across Europe in an arguably unsustainable state; and the gap between the top and the rest grows with each passing season. A well-funded, oven-ready initiative to cure some of these ills should have expected at the very least to prompt a constructive debate.

“Oven-ready”, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister and predictably (except, fatefully, to the Super League’s would-be founders) a lead character in this story, is the first mistake the Super Leaguers made. The project was presented to the football world as a fait accompli – conceived by a remote set of billionaires and inflicted on their own managers and players as well as fans and the rest of the football community. A consumer initiative won’t get anywhere if it conspicuously ignores the consumers. And calling your current consumers (rather than the new ones you want to reach) “legacy” fans is not the way to ingratiate yourself with them either. Rather than ignore them, the Super League’s creators should have sought to consult and work with them to create a sense of collective endeavour to address mutually recognised issues. The “us” versus “them” framing of this vision for the future of top-flight football was avoidable and of the League’s instigators’ own making. Had a more collaborative approach been taken to the devising and communicating of the proposals, the Super League could at least have expected to have some advocates for its merits beyond those who stood to gain financially from it.

The timing of the announcement was just as ill-advised. That the timing was thrust upon the Super Leaguers is betrayed by the state of their on-line materials and their preparedness to respond even to the first wave of criticism. Clearly leaks can’t always be avoided, but the damage a leak can do is often heavily influenced by its timing, so it’s best to avoid taking steps which significantly increase the chances of a leak at a very disadvantageous moment. There’s rarely a way back if your detractors have the first platform. In this case, the first that those with the greatest interest knew of the proposals was hearing pundit and Manchester United icon Gary Neville’s passionate, articulate and emphatic tirade immediately after would-be Super League founding club (and the country’s most watched side) Man United defeated Burnley in their Sunday afternoon fixture. It’s imperative to get your messages out first and to as wide an audience as possible. The Super League clubs woke up on Monday to find they had already lost the argument.

The next oversight was in failing to prepare to respond to all stakeholders and their various lines of attack. A Conservative Government with Red Wall voters to keep onside, elections on the near horizon and a leader with an unrivalled nose for the public mood was always going to be a loud voice in a debate on the national sport. The Prime Minister only needed to use the words “legislative bomb” and this was over as a contest. The Super League organisers’ apparent failure to anticipate this intervention was naïve and ultimately fatal. There has been plenty of debate on whether the Government’s intervention was necessary, but even if it wasn’t it was like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, as the saying goes. Proper preparation which serves rather than simply mitigates means being ready not just for day one but the days that follow any announcement. There is no excuse not to have this stamina and the materials to feed it when you are the first mover. The Super League had run out of messages by Monday. Its spokespeople (wherever they were) should have been ready with new supporting messages and detail for the days that followed the initial announcement – more details explaining how promotion to the Super League would work, more colour on the solidarity payments and their necessity to save the game, more on the plans for the women’s game and so on. What they had to offer instead was virtual silence until the first cards started to fall. To win hearts and minds (though this never seemed the ambition) your audiences need to be spoken to in their own language by spokespeople with authority and who they have reason to trust. Florentino Perez, the initiative’s apparently accidental spokesperson, spoke only (recalcitrant) Spanish. Nobody else spoke until it was time to apologise – something they did with varying degrees of success.

To the extent the Super League had prepared any messages at all, they were far too light on detail and substance to convince. Ostensibly positive messages can be counter-productive if the level of detail or substance is so flimsy as to appear hollow or even dishonest. Talk of turning attention to the women’s game “as soon as possible” looked like just such tokenism, with huge clubs in the women’s game like Lyon and Wolfsburg excluded.

Football is amongst the most discussed topics on practically every media channel and platform imaginable. Countless broadcast programmes, talk shows, podcasts and media outlets create enough content to sate an unlimited appetite. You can’t be represented in every forum and every debate, but surely you must seek to have an advocate making your case in some of the most influential of them? Sometimes football teams are accused of not showing up on the day, and it can be true of football club owners too. That they had no compelling figure-head to make the case in a coordinated media plan, nor advocates without skin in the game, was their undoing. And because the Super League’s creators established no body to speak for them, the unrelenting criticism of the scheme had nowhere to be directed but the culpable clubs and their owners.

A campaign focused solely on trashing the opposition would have failed with no less ignominy, but it was none-the-less quite remarkable to see UEFA presented by default as being on the side of righteousness – a status that body should enjoy while it lasts. ‘Hypocrisy’ was a word which could have been front and centre in conversations around these alternative visions for the future of European football, as the current Champions League format which UEFA oversees is believed by many to have similar flaws and vested interests which have proved impossible to dislodge. That ‘greed’ overshadowed this by a factor of 100 to one was the final communications calamity from what football fans will hope are the sport’s new ‘specialists in failure’.

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