Jamie Williams, Managing Partner at isobel and ardent Spurs fan, unpicks the failed European Super League through a marketing lens and exposes the extraordinary errors that were made.
It’s not often a news story unites so many diverse figures and groups across society. But from Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Prince William to football pundits, ex-players, current managers and rival football fans across the land, the world spoke up together this week against the newly proposed European Super League. And the answer was categorically, no.
The proposed US franchise style of European football would have guaranteed entry for the richest clubs in Europe, with no chance of relegation for the founding clubs. And importantly for football club owners, no chance of missing out on their new and lucrative replacement for the Champions League, which currently creates so much financial uncertainty for them every season, with a number of clubs scrambling to finish in the premiership’s top four qualification places.
Almost everyone in the country has had their say this week. And according to YouGov, 79% were against it. But purely from a marketing point of view, the Super League idea was a complete and utter disaster.
Firstly, the owners of the 12 breakaway clubs (6 of which are from the English Premier League), committed the biggest marketing sin of all and failed to understand what makes their product so special, and why consumers love it so much.
Football today is of course very different from what it once was. It’s moved from a working-class Saturday afternoon ritual for loyal local fans to a global multi-million-pound industry, controlled by astronomically expensive subscription TV rights, billionaire football club owners who rarely visit their clubs, and millionaire super-star players, who have become global brands in their own right.
However, despite the huge changes football has experienced, the fundamentals are mostly still in place. The passion of loyal fans, the uncertainty of the outcome, the all or nothing nature of cup finals, the attrition of league football and glory of being top at the end of a season, and the fact that in almost every single match, there is something hugely important on the line. Winning, losing, promotion, relegation, ecstasy, despair. Football fans will tell you, there is nothing else quite like it.
The Super League would have removed so much of this. It would have become an American style, predictable and formulaic sporting industry. The magic, the USP, would have gone.
Secondly, and almost as criminally, the club owners behind the Super League failed to understand their target audience and the mindset of their most loyal consumers.
According to reports, they defined existing loyal club fans, with family or local ties to clubs, as ‘legacy fans’. Whilst important, they are not ‘the future apparently. The audience they want to focus on is a new, global, younger, fan. Perhaps less aligned to one club, and more a fan of watching the true superstar players play against each other every week. A kind of ‘football content’ global world for the Netflix generation, with hugely increased TV viewership revenue.
When considering target audiences, many marketing briefs seek to expand an audience, whilst seeking to keep (and importantly not turn off) their existing consumers. And boy oh boy did the Super League idea turn off existing consumers.
Football is still immensely tribal. Football fans stick by their clubs through thick and thin. For Liverpool fans to hang “RIP LFC” banners outside of Anfield, and for Chelsea fans to protest outside of Stamford Bridge, all with the same unified message, is nothing short of extraordinary.
Thirdly, the brains behind the Super League seem to have completely misread the room. As good marketers know, it’s not just what you say that matters, it’s how and when you say it. After a year of the pandemic, of furloughs, of struggling business, with the lower league and grassroots football clubs hanging on for their lives, the footballing rich kids appear to be completely tone-deaf. Whilst everyone was struggling through lockdowns, 12 football club owners were plotting against the sport, and in one single press release announcement, they’ve managed to turn the entire footballing world against them.
And then the final catastrophe. Every ambitious new brand seeks a powerful launch moment, that captures the imaginations of potential consumers and communicates the very best of what is to come. Key messages need to be considered, answers to difficult questions need to be ready, and a synchronised wave of positive PR needs to be in place. The Super League seemingly didn’t plan for any of this and managed to organise one of the worst PR launches in the history of PR.
So, after a turbulent week, the European Super League idea is dead. And true football fans have won.
But the footballing world came very close to being turned upside down forever. And scarily, with a well-thought-through marketing strategy in place, it may well have been.