Football scores its own goal!

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… In the process they guaranteed themselves big name, high-revenue matches, irrespective of performance on the pitch…

Fifteen of the biggest clubs in Europe secretly decided to form their own breakaway Europe Super League (ESL). In the process they guaranteed themselves big name, high-revenue matches, irrespective of performance on the pitch. In a model similar to the American NBA or NFL, teams could not be relegated from the new League if they performed poorly.

The pandemic has left many clubs in a poorer financial position, and that was part of the motivation for this new League, because of the greater TV revenues the new deal offered. Further, JP Morgan was bankrolling guarantees of USD 4 billion.

But the ESL lasted a grand total of 2 days, until 6 English clubs  withdrew following worldwide fan outrage, player indignation and political pressure.

What lessons can marketers gain from what is the biggest marketing and PR disaster in sports in years?

Team managements were rocked and clubs launched post-haste apologies that looked insincere. Fans are still protesting against their owners. UEFA fines and censures are yet to come.

What lessons can marketers gain from what is the biggest marketing and PR disaster in sports in years?

Don’t stray far away from your core customer: The administrators and owners have forgotten what business they are in. TV rights are massive because of global audiences for the game, and the owners were focused on that, while they ignored the local fans. They ignored the core of the game which is local fans who support their teams come rain or shine in the stadiums and neighbourhoods that birthed the clubs 150 years ago. By setting up a League where smaller clubs could not enter, it was seen as a cynical money-making effort, with the soul of the game being sold out. Even fans of the big clubs did not want this sudden shift to their traditional game.

…the ESL lasted a grand total of 2 days…

When launching a new product, pre-test it and socialize it:
• The Europe Super League was sprung on the world on a Sunday afternoon, with team managers and players hearing about it for the first time along with outraged fans. When the owners and top brass do things in secret, and then present it as a fait accompli, they damage irrevocably the trust between the brand and its consumers. Had the creators tested and familiarized the idea, they might have stood a better chance of success. Had they deployed the magnetic pull of soccer stars in service of their cause, instead of against it, they might have succeeded. Instead of being seen as a greedy initiative by ivory tower-dwelling owners, it could have been positioned as a thoughtful effort to save the game.

Never underestimate the power of emotion:
• The ESL forgot that the game is full of tradition, legendary stories and a fabric of shared memories. Football fans live off the romantic possibility that a small, under-funded, lower tier team can topple a top squad, any given weekend of the year. It may happen only once in a few months or years, but the possibility exists actively in the hearts and minds of fans. Perhaps supporting a football club is an essentially irrational act, and a journey of pain, but fans do it anyways. The calculating minds of the ESL ignored the hot-blooded passions that the existing formats of the game stirred.  Even if the ESL made more financial sense for all parties, by not managing the emotional aspects of the change the ESL founders lost their battle swiftly.

Marketers would be wise to avoid these own goals.

Sandeep Joseph is the CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Advisory, a strategic media consultancy that was Campaign Magazine’s Malaysia Independent Agency of the Year for 2019 and 2020. The views expressed here are his own: you can debate with him at [email protected]

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