There have been numerous communications disasters when it comes to launching or relaunching products, services or ideas into the world, which are close to the hearts of large amounts of the global population.
However, we would be hard pressed to identify one as seismic as the attempted launch of the European Super League (ESL). Within 48 hours a product being touted as the ‘saviour of football’ – by it’s founders – had crashed and burned and lay in complete ruins with billionaire businessmen left humiliated, despite many of the population previously crediting them with lots of competence due to the wealth they acquired through business deals over many decades. But maybe, just maybe we were wrong and their thirst for more money blinded their business sense and led them to be arrogant enough to try and create a product without consulting their internal teams and even more alarming their own customers. In fact it could be argued that if the 12 clubs were better run they wouldn’t be spending four or five times what they receive in revenue in the first place and wouldn’t need to jump on the first offer of extra money.
The global advertising industry receives a lot of stick – and in most cases rightly so – because its very nature means it is intrinsically immersed into consumer culture and any wrong step is immediately placed under a microscope, but one thing it has certainly learnt, particularly during the pandemic, is how important it is to get internal and external buy in before you attempt to radically change – or in some quarters destroy – a product more than a century old and is a way of life for generations of families around the world.
The sheer arrogance of the owners of the clubs involved in the attempted football coup with the ESL is impressive. Yes, there are a lot of issues with the way the current football structure is operating, and change is definitely needed, but to try and force an idea that would be potentially disastrous for everyone except those involved in a closed group is just wrong.
Not only were they showing little respect for their own internal teams and their customers they were also trying to run roughshod across the very organisations – FIFA, UEFA and all domestic league bodies – set up to try and ensure there is some form of order in football. Yes, these organisations are far from clean and one their former leaders is currently on trial for bribery, but they do serve a current purpose. These bodies were never likely to go down without a fight and although it’s a great story to suggest internal team and customer (fan) protests were responsible for the ESL demise, it’s more likely to be the offer of better future numerical rewards for the companies involved in its creation from these very organisations currently running football, which would highlight the ongoing issues within the game.
It’s something we see in the advertising world all of the time, particularly when some of the big tech firms feel threatened by new upstarts and they either acquire them, or create their own version of what their competitors are doing to protect their revenue and future, while in the past we have seen it with holding companies doing exactly the same. It’s the way of business, but when it’s a product or service so immersed in culture and life in general it becomes that little bit more tricky if you do it without the customer buy in.
However, the good story – and the one the UK’s Prime Minister is happy to back even though he’s not a big fan of the sport – is that it was people power which stopped the greedy owners from potentially destroying football as we know it. That said, it’s certainly set a precedent for football and almost created an anti-capitalist movement in a sport, particularly in the UK, which could be deemed as a success.
What comes next for the clubs involved in the ESL is going to be interesting. There has definitely been some brand reputational damage from internal and external stakeholders. How do they begin to win back the support of the fans? How do they gain the trust of the clubs who were not invited into the project, yet have to work with them in their domestic leagues? Will players start to question why they are working for a particular club? How do they regain the trust of their own boards and executives? There are lots of questions to be answered and it probably makes sense for each of the clubs to get some expert advice from the advertising sector.
It would also have been interesting to see what stance the array of sponsors backing the 12 clubs involved in the ESL would have taken if the plans has succeeded. Would they have questioned their involvement against a backdrop of protest from players and fans? Or would they – and it’s easy to understand why – have relished the opportunity to have more exposure to a bigger global audience. It is certainly intriguing, particularly as more and more brands are creating campaigns which are having an impact on wider society. We will not know now, but when a new version of this project comes around again – as it surely will – it will be interesting to see what stance they take.
What we can definitely say for sure is that the ESL founders should have spoken to the advertising industry first to understand the pro and cons of launching a new venture when not consulting its customer base and having an understanding of what drives their behaviour.
There is certainly more to come on this in the future, but for now the whistle has been blown.