How to avoid the PR mistakes of the European Super League

The short-lived European Super League provided a disasterclass in PR management, here’s how your company can avoid making the same mistakes and how the fiasco could impact the future of the football industry

On Sunday evening, shortly after 11pm, a small group of Europe’s elite football clubs snuck out an announcement that they would be forming a breakaway competition. By Wednesday — after public furore and backlash in the media — only eight of the founding 12 clubs remained and more soon dropped out, leaving the project in tatters.

So what went so wrong for the European Super League (ESL) in the space of a few days? Conrad Wiacek, head of sport analysis at GlobalData, believes it was all down to the messaging. “The way they went about it was very amateurish,” he says. “That’s the most surprising thing about it. If you look at a club like Manchester United for example, they hire PR and communications specialists but it doesn’t seem like they’ve consulted any of them.”

James Montague, author of The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-rich Owners, concurs. “This is going to be taught as a classic example of how not to launch something in PR school,” he says. “They sounded as if they only wanted more money based on the belief that they deserved it, which is a terrible message that didn’t even resonate with the fans of their own clubs.”

The 12 clubs involved, which included Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, came out with the same pre-written statement informing fans, and the wider football community, of their plans. Each included the line: “In exchange for their commitment, 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.” 

This focus on the financial rewards — from a group of teams collectively worth in excess of €34 billion, according to Forbes — in the midst of a global pandemic did not sit well with fans. But despite the resultant outrage, which captured headlines across the globe, the football clubs and their owners remained silent.

The ESL and the clubs allowed the narrative to be set for them, instead of controlling it, leaving them open to further criticism and bad press

Montague, adds: “Unfortunately, with billionaire owners, you have some of the most secretive individuals in the world. Take Stan Kroenke of Arsenal, his nickname is silent Stan because he never talks to the media. Their silence created a vacuum which was filled with absolutely furious righteous anger, not just by fans but also by politicians who ultimately have the power to regulate them.”

Hayley Smith, director of Boxed Out PR and a crisis communications expert, believes this group of clubs should have addressed concerns head on. “The biggest mistake is they took too much time in responding to criticism, concerns and questions. The ESL and the clubs allowed the narrative to be set for them, instead of controlling it, leaving them open to further criticism and bad press.”

Handling the fan fallout

Another key issue surrounding the ESL announcement was the disconnect it created with fans. 

Alex Gordon, who went to his first Tottenham Hotspur game at the age of seven, says: “When you read the announcement that we were going to leave the Super League, there was no remorse or apology. This completely shows how disconnected owners are from the club and the fans. There was no thought about how this might be received.”

Luke Burton, another Tottenham Hotspur fan, adds: “The decision was communicated via a blunt, poorly prepared statement on Sunday night with zero prior consultation or warning.” A move which he describes as “disgusting”.

One way that companies can avoid making similar mistakes when delivering potentially contentious announcements is through focus groups. Smith says: “I am a huge fan of focus groups, as it provides valuable feedback and can help make a good idea, much better. I think they missed a good opportunity not getting industry professionals, and fans involved.”

Similarly, when responding to the resultant backlash, Smith believes the group of breakaway clubs managed to break every rule of crisis PR. She says: “They didn’t formulate a game plan, they haven’t been honest, they didn’t react or communicate accordingly or in coordination, the messaging was confusing and unaligned, they haven’t stated the actions they plan on taking to resolve the problems and they haven’t controlled the narrative.”

What businesses can learn from the ESL fiasco

The 12 clubs still have a lot to do when it comes to rebuilding the reputational damage created by the botched ESL move. Brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance estimate that the clubs’ combined brand value could potentially have taken a €2.5 billion hit.

For Smith, the key takeaways for business leaders hoping to avoid a PR catastrophe are to plan, prepare and be proactive. She says: “It’s important to have a solid communications plan in place that covers potential fallouts, criticisms, contingency plans for unforeseen issues and exit strategies.

“Work closely with your team, preparing them for any expected outcomes, and making sure that they have the tools needed to respond and represent the company effectively. Be proactive if something goes wrong, react internally immediately and get everyone involved who needs to be. And finally process the problem, the outcome, the solutions and what you and your team has learned. This will be an important tool for future scenarios.”

For Montague, the past week has forced people to ask more fundamental questions about the funding of the sport. “It’s highlighted the need to have a different type of model for football,” he says. “We now need to have a far more open discussion about how to organise the financing of football in the future and the ownership model.”