16th December 2021

How the failed European Super League lost the comms battle before it even began

On 30 November, the EU’s 27 sports ministers unanimously approved a new resolution on the future of European sports designed to prevent any future closed sporting competitions—and, in effect, block the resurrection of soccer’s European Super League (ESL).

The ministers stated that European sporting culture should be ‘aligned with EU values of solidarity, sustainability, inclusiveness for all, open competition, sporting merit, and fairness’.

While the vote itself went largely unreported in Irish and UK sports media, it brought to a close one of the biggest sports stories of 2021 and one of the more haphazard attempted coups in recent memory.

Where did it all begin?

On 18 April, twelve of European football’s biggest clubs, including Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, and Arsenal, attempted to unceremoniously cut all ties with the UEFA Champions League and go it alone by creating their own self-selecting, self-governing ‘European Super League’.

When the news broke, it caught nearly everyone by surprise.  The official announcement was published simultaneously on the websites of all twelve clubs at 11pm on a Sunday evening.

The press release claimed the new competition would ‘provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid’.

In the highly tribal world of European club football, the ESL was always going to provoke hostility, particularly from the clubs, broadcasters, and sports bodies that stood to lose out.  However, the sheer breadth and ferocity of the subsequent outrage proved a sight to behold.

Losing control of the narrative

The story was quickly framed as a battle for the soul of British and European football, of good versus evil, of cherished centuries-old football traditions against hyper-aggressive global capitalism and the Americanisation of European sport.

Such was the intensity of public reaction that for a brief window of time it eclipsed Covid-19 as the most pressing political issue facing European heads of state.  British prime minister Boris Johnson threatened to ‘drop a legislative bomb’ to prevent the league from happening.

Even Taoiseach Micheál Martin felt compelled to get in on the action, describing it as ‘wrong’ and suggesting it would ‘divert money away from football communities, destroying core principles on which sport is supposed to be based’.

For the twelve football club owners in question, the ESL dream was short lived.  Within 72 hours, nine of the founding clubs had abandoned ship. The insurrection was over before it had really begun.

The ESL's announcement was met with widespread condemnation from football fans across Europe.

A communications vacuum

The financial upside binding this unlikely alliance of US sports franchise owners, Gulf royals, Russian oligarchs, and European industrial tycoons is well documented.

However, given the collective political, financial, and brand muscle behind the clubs in question, the most striking part of the whole episode was how poorly it was sold—or not sold—to football supporters, decision-makers, and the broader footballing pyramid.

The project had all the tell-tale signs of a hurried plan hatched in the dark of night, with all matters related to strategic planning, marketing, PR, and stakeholder buy-in kept strictly confidential.

Most telling was the absence of a roster of spokespersons or salespersons willing to go public to sell or even defend the project.  None of the ESL’s Premier League club owners were willing to talk.

Naturally, the watching world turned its attention to the clubs’ other public-facing figures, namely the players and managers. However, it quickly became apparent that they knew no more than the rest of us.

Less than 24 hours after the initial announcement, Liverpool played Leeds United in a routine Premier League fixture.  Amid a backdrop of street protests and palpable anger, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and first-team player James Milner both acknowledged that they hadn’t been consulted on the club’s involvement in the breakaway competition. “I don’t like it, and I hope it doesn’t happen,” said Milner.

The Gary Neville factor

That same evening, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville delivered a nine-minute-long diatribe opposing the proposed league and castigated his former club Manchester United for its involvement.  The video went viral within minutes and set the tone for all subsequent analysis. If there were any swing voters up for grabs before, they were certainly gone now.

As the hours ticked by, we were still left waiting for the ESL to present its vision, counter the criticism, provide some detail, reassure the undecided, or even push for a more balanced debate.  The cavalry never arrived.

ESL ringleader and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez eventually took to the pulpit on Spanish late-night television, but his brash and disjointed efforts to reframe the debate were never going to wash beyond his traditional Madrid power base, and certainly not with UK audiences.  It was all too little, too late.

At approximately 7:30pm on Tuesday, 20 April, Manchester City officially confirmed its withdrawal from the ESL, and soon others followed. Marketing and communications energies were quickly redeployed toward drafting public apologies and begging for forgiveness from fans.

Moral victory or failed communications?

When the ESL finally admitted defeat, there was high-fiving euphoria across the football world. The football men had won out over the money men, and the cynical and ill-conceived concept of a European Super League was defeated.  The good guys had won.

However, subsequent developments in European football, including the Saudi Arabia-backed takeover of Newcastle United, as well as ongoing controversies surrounding the Qatar World Cup suggest that it might be a little naive to assume powerful club owners and football association directors have seen the error of their ways or corrected their course.

Time and again, we’re reminded that elite football possesses sufficient moral wiggle room to navigate unpopular change or controversy, provided there is a compelling business rationale for doing so.

Clearly, the ESL concept was deeply flawed.  Its failure can be attributed in part to numerous factors, including a nakedly self-serving concept, poor planning, an overly narrow support base, a weak coalition, and even underlying geopolitical agendas. However, at the very centre of its downfall was a failure to communicate.

The European club football structure is widely acknowledged as deeply flawed and lopsided, yet when Florentino Pérez argued that the ESL would ‘save football’, there was nobody prepared to articulate how it would work or what the benefits would look like.

In the absence of a clear communications strategy, the ESL’s many detractors were left to fill in the blanks.

About the author

With his intelligent communications skillset and extensive media connections, Paddy helps clients build stand-out messaging and achieve their business objectives, whether they’re a start-up raising seed capital or an established player pushing for industry reform or telling their employer brand story.  Paddy has been published in a number of national publications, including the Business Post, Irish Independent, Fora.ie, and The42.ie on the theme of strategic communications and reputation management.

Cover photo credit: Chloe Knott

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