Analysis: Communications own goals doomed European Super League to failure

The project’s architects had no discernible strategy for how to sell their ideas to anybody from the public to internal stakeholders

‘The ESL founders completely underestimated the public backlash.’ Picture: Getty

When news emerged on Sunday afternoon of the proposed European Super League (ESL), few would have thought that the house of cards would have toppled within 72 hours.

Perhaps such a radical move may have been doomed from the onset irrespective of the manner in which the announcement was made, but an analysis of the approach to communications and stakeholder management points towards a few needless and costly own goals.

Stakeholder management

The importance of stakeholder management and engagement cannot be understated and while this was intended to be one off development, the reality is that the initial shock and surprise among key stakeholders, without whose buy-in this dream was doomed to failure, underpinned the immense levels of public anger we saw.

Radical reform and change of any organisation or in any industry must always be carefully managed.

It is a dangerous position to be in announcing something without some degree of prior warning or some signal of intent to your key stakeholders of what is to come. Of course, this isn’t always possible with market sensitive announcements but if you find yourself in a position where the vast majority of your stakeholders and those you need to advocate for the reform you are suggesting are caught off guard then something has gone wrong in the preparation phase.

Internal communications

The apparent lack of communication with managers and players of the clubs involved was surprising and it was quite incredible to hear Jurgen Klopp and James Milner, Liverpool’s manager and captain, say on Monday night that they had only become aware of this development the previous day like the public did. With any external announcement, internal communication is a pre-requisite and organisations of all shapes and sizes around the world can attest to the importance of bringing colleagues on the journey with you.

Filling the vacuum

Meanwhile, the timing of the joint statement on Sunday evening following a weekend of domestic action across European leagues was curious in itself. But if the timing was speculative, the ensuing silence and lack of engagement on the part of the clubs was extremely damaging as it served to create a vacuum which was immediately filled by sporting, media and political commentators, various governing bodies, fans and even contributions from the Royal Family.

Granted the founders of the ESL may have been fighting a losing battle from the off but with any controversial announcement there is always going to be that initial furore and from a strategic communications point of view you have to front up in those early moments and set out your argument and rationale before eventually fading into the background and letting the debate commence, comfortable in the compelling arguments you have created.

The building blocks for developing persuasive arguments centre on outlining the relevant context, challenges and associated opportunities alongside a strategic vision and reasons to believe in this vision. Aside from an appearance from Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president, the lack of a coherent narrative on the part of the main proponents of the ESL coupled with a lack of visibility was telling. In addition, there were no voices of support and no significant third-party endorsement.

Anticipating the reaction

While it’s easy to be clever after the fact, it’s obvious that the ESL founders completely underestimated the public backlash. Led by fervent and articulate advocates across print, online, broadcast media and social media, an army was mobilised, and a relentless onslaught of passionate rhetoric followed. Gary Neville’s contributions on Monday Night Football would not go amiss in the House of Commons while others within the remaining 14 delivered impactful statements turning the screw on the ESL clubs who it seems weren’t prepared for the counter arguments.

When Petr Cech, the legendary Chelsea goalkeeper, was spotted in the midst of protesting Chelsea supporters outside Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening, the writing was on the wall and this was further compounded by statements posted by Liverpool players and a selection of Manchester United and Manchester City players along with the resignation of Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

In terms of the communications strategy adopted by the ESL founders, it appears their hope was that the storm would pass following which they could start to discuss the ‘Why’ — outlining their overall vision and rationale and some of the specific benefits that they saw such as solidarity payments and benefits for grassroots football.

Following the announcement, the share prices of both Man United and Juventus surged before crashing, which was an interesting indicator of the commercial value the market saw in this new league before realising the public and reputational backlash these clubs would now face. While it’s hard to quantify the reputational damage, these clubs will have incurred, there is little doubt that given the public reaction, this will have been at the forefront of their thinking. You have to imagine commercial partners will have been watching events closely adding to the level of angst among the clubs involved. From a reputation standpoint, it was also revealing in itself that Amazon Prime moved to disassociate itself from the new competition, confirming the direction public sentiment was heading in.

For the club owners, the focus must now be on rebuilding reputation and restoring trust with fans, players and staff. They need to show a level of contrition and humility in doing so and acknowledge that they got this wrong. Some of the club statements we saw emerge on Tuesday evening have addressed this – the Arsenal statement in particular which expressed genuine remorse.

Dan O’Neill is a director in the Dublin office of global CEO advisory firm Teneo and specialises in strategic communications and reputation management.