Breaking down the communications strategy of the European Super League
A lot can change over the course of seven days in football and last week was certainly no exception.
At 11pm BST, on Sunday 18th April, when the majority of the UK would likely be offline ahead of the upcoming week, 12 clubs released a blanket statement announcing they intended to break away from UEFA’s Champions and Europa League competitions, to form a new mid-week league, the European Super League (ESL).
Amid fierce backlash from fans, media and almost every stakeholder in football, only two days later the six English clubs who had previously committed to the Champions League replacement, promptly withdrew their membership. As if the U-turn wasn’t chaotic enough, the communications or lack of in this case, was remarkable to witness as the public outcry for the league to be abandoned was almost unanimously met with a stonewall silence.
This was perhaps the first failing of the ESL communications strategy. Judging by the complete silence for most of the 24 hours following the announcement, the clubs seemingly concluded they could ride out any initial negative reaction, with no plan to answer questions the following day. However, the overwhelming opposition to the statement was almost unprecedented, as was the level of unity from football fans across the country, which forced the clubs to react. So, nearly 24 hours after the initial announcement, the first representative of the ESL came before the public to explain the motives behind the new league.
As Real Madrid president Florentino Perez held a press conference on Monday evening, finally the clubs had taken the opportunity to at least explain why the decision was being made and paint them in slightly more positive light… or so it should have been.
What Perez produced came across as more akin to a sympathy beg for additional cash, rather than an explanation as to why they needed to radically change football, as he claimed the Spanish club lost €400 million in the last two seasons.
So not only did the initial statement released on Sunday focus the financial desire of the clubs, “founding clubs will receive an amount of €3.5 billion solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic”, but they subconsciously reinforced that narrative to the fans by suggesting the financial difficulties the clubs were suffering, despite their significant wealth.
This would have been controversial, but tolerable if the messaging had have remained consistent and honest from the start. However, Perez went on to suggest that the ESL was being set up to “save football”. The poorly managed message led to even greater anguish from fans, who felt that football didn’t need saving and that the motive for the league was financial stability for the rich.
The timing of the initial announcement also has to be questioned. It is hard to imagine how the announcement could have been produced at any greater an inconvenience to the average UK-based football fan. Given the timings tended to lend themselves to more of an international time zone, rather than anything European-centric, only further added to UK-based fans believing this was an attempt to take football away from them.
However, rumours of information leaks and the announcement possibly being intended for 9:30pm, may be mitigating factors for the poor choice of timing. Despite this, the reaction of the clubs was non-existent to the unanimous distain from the entirety of the football community, which was left unanswered by any spokesperson for a significant period of time.
Equally poorly managed was the consistency of communication to staff and players, a number of which had games in the subsequent days following the ESL announcement.
It was obviously a concern of the news being leaked and the secrecy around the project is commendable, however, the subsequent lack of communication after the announcement was not.
With managers like Klopp and Tuchel shunted in front of the media with a seeming lack of information about the project before their scheduled Monday and Tuesday night matches. Klopp was even quoted as saying “Obviously I heard for the first time about it yesterday, and trying to prepare a game, a very difficult game against Leeds, and I knew so far we got some information, not a lot to be honest”.
Furthermore, the complete lack of organisation and a coherent, consistent communications strategy was extended to the senior management, and in AC Milan’s case, not even the Technical Director Paolo Maldini was aware of the plans, stating “I heard the news only on Sunday, like all of you, through the joint press releases that have been published”.
There were fundamental failings during the announcement and in the few days following. However, John W Henry sending a heartfelt and genuine apology for his actions and Manchester City sending individual emails to fans to apologise are two of the better reactions from the clubs acknowledging their mistakes.
However, these have also been accompanied by poor examples of owning up to the mistakes, like Stan Kroenke not even putting his name on the Arsenal apology statement, but instead hiding being the guise of ‘the board’. Once again, further angering some supporters.
Although only time will tell whether the apologies can be deemed acceptable, their success will be primarily measured by how soon, if ever, the clubs are able to regain the trust of the fans.
With the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Manchester United’s Carrington training ground both mobbed by protesters even after the announcement of the withdrawal, an immediate reconciliation looks unlikely.