It will go down in history as one of the most controversial events in sporting history. As news emerged that twelve of the ‘biggest’ clubs in European football (Manchester United, Liverpool and Real Madrid to name a few) were planning to breakaway and start their own ‘Super League’, the barrage of condemnation was almost instantaneous. So, what exactly went wrong with the Super League’s PR super blunder? And how can we look at this incident as a case study for why authentic messaging in PR is so important?
Once details of the coup emerged and it became clear that this decision would redefine English football as everyone knew it, the response was overwhelmingly negative, with pundits, players, fans and even Government voicing their extreme disapproval of the project.
Ultimately, the removal of the ‘big six’ clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) from the Premier League, would have significant consequences for clubs in lower leagues, as the money generated from television rights would soon disappear.
With this in mind, it also didn’t take long for the protests to begin, with popular pundits like Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher spearheading the movement to block the plans from going through.
Within 72 hours of the plans being announced, the pressure became too much and the cracks started to show, with Manchester City becoming the first club to withdraw, which then set off a chain reaction of the other clubs following suit.
The European Super League quickly became a PR super blunder, and the billionaire owners of some of these clubs were forced to accept defeat and apologise to fans for their part in the plans.
Whilst much has been said about the lack of consultation between owners and fans, this approach to decision making is not out of the ordinary for some of these clubs, whose supporters have been complaining about the behaviour of their owners for years.
Instead, the biggest and most obvious criticism of the proposed ESL, was the fact that it was nothing more than a greed-fueled power grab, with the twelve clubs attempting to set up a ‘closed shop’ competition, so they could guarantee significant profit from television rights.
One of the most controversial elements of the Super League was the automatic qualification of the twelve ‘founding clubs’, with no relegation mechanism in place to give other deserving clubs an opportunity to benefit from the lucrative competition.
This format of 15 teams competing in a ‘closed shop’ league with no fear of relegation was compared to the American NFL and NBA franchises, and whilst these are successful in their own right, they go against the concept of competition in football where teams are rewarded based on merit.
Needless to say, the proposed Super League was viewed as an ‘attack on football’, with the history and traditions of English clubs under threat, as a breakaway league would undoubtedly threaten the financial stability of lower league clubs.
Manufactured vs authentic message
Of course, these owners expected some sort of backlash to the plans and so they attempted to disguise the ESL by insisting it was a necessary step for the greater good of the game, and that European football needed to change in order for clubs to survive.
However, a lack of PR and communication strategy from the clubs involved meant that many football fans saw this reasoning as a cover for the owners’ greed. This manufactured message couldn’t stand up to intense scrutiny and eventually the plans unraveled to the embarrassment of the so-called founding clubs.
Instead, the authentic message, which argued that football’s traditions and the concept of competition should be protected, prevailed, as the idea of preserving the existing football pyramid could not be argued against.
Conclusion – Why authentic messaging is key to staying ahead in PR
Whilst a manufactured message does not always result in such overwhelming public outrage, firms that confidently deliver authentic messages will often develop much stronger relationships with their audience, built on trust and integrity.
Whilst preventing the ESL from going ahead was a huge achievement for football fans, from a PR perspective, these clubs have caused significant damage to their reputation, with the trust between fans and owners irreparably broken.
Needless to say, attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of your customers for your own monetary gain is nothing short of a PR disaster, as audiences can see through the manufactured message, and are willing to fight against the decisions of a few greedy owners.