What communicators can learn from the European Super League debacle

The explosive soccer imbroglio offers plenty of prescient takeaways for messaging maestros. Not least of which: Don’t infuriate or alienate your fans.

Lessons from the Super League debacle

Soccer is religion for tens of millions of fans globally, many of whom are hyper-aware of even the most minute roster moves, rumors and transfer tidbits that churn on a daily basis.

So it should come as no surprise that when 12 of Europe’s biggest teams announced what amounted to a tectonic shift in the sport’s landscape, the fan blowback was swift and loud — resulting in an instant PR case study that, while specific to sports, resonates across industries.

On April 18, leaders from 12 of Europe’s most prestigious clubs announced the formation of The Super League, a brand new global soccer competition that would “provide higher-quality matches” and “significantly greater economic growth” for European soccer. The catch was that The Super League would upend one of the key pieces of the global soccer order by seeking to supersede the UEFA Champions League — a globally-beloved and venerated European soccer competition that brings together top teams from across the continent, and has been an annual fixture on the soccer calendar since 1955.

The Super League — which seemed like a bulletproof entity to the owners of its elite member clubs — was met with ferocious, instantaneous backlash from fans, players and journalists alike upon its announcement, with one notable reporter trumpeting: “Super League cabal have spectacularly failed to read the room.”

In the immediate aftermath, fans worldwide staged protests, member clubs issued apologies, and a number of top club executives were forced to resign. Ultimately, The Super League collapsed, leaving years of planning, coordination and goodwill in a heap of rubble.

This entire episode begged the question — where did it all go wrong? The answers are plentiful, but it’s clear that some very basic PR mistakes were made in the process:

  • The Super League wasn’t created in the best interest of fans — the sport’s key consumers — in mind. While the league purported to be all about high-quality competition and a superior product, fans could see right through the smokescreen and understood that the move was all about more money for the club’s owners. It also didn’t fulfill any tangible fan need. Fans already had a top-tier competition of great importance to follow — the UEFA Champions League — and were savvy enough to see that this was a money-grab by the club’s owners.
  • Lack of an immediate response from the league and club owners created a vacuum filled by negative sentiment. Instead of preparing its response in the case of a negative fan and media reaction, the league remained silent for days following the initial announcement, allowing the news cycle to be dominated by unflattering stories and opinions across all forms of commentary.
  • The league’s launch featured nothing more than a logo and a press release. The Super League seemingly had no media plan behind its launch and relied solely on words on a page to curry favor among fans. Though a larger media plan might not have shunted away fan negativity, it would have allowed the league to emerge with a narrative and clear point of view.
  • Severe lack of third-party endorsement. As seen with many launches of this size and scope, third-party or influencer collaborations that help amplify the news in a positive way are often used. Yet when the Super League’s “super” brass made the announcement, nowhere did we see the top faces in the game endorsing the launch. Where was Cristiano Ronaldo? Messi? Pogba? Neymar? The list of those who were notably not involved goes on and on — which undoubtedly hurt the credibility of the launch itself.

Rather than creating something new and exciting for a global legion of fans, the execs behind the colossal fail that was the Super League ignited condemnation from fans of its member clubs. In the process, they gave the PR industry a glaring use case of what not to do at launch. It also served as a helpful, if not dramatic, reminder that your customers (in this case, soccer fans) should always be top of mind when introducing a new product.

Matt Schwartz is a New York-based vice president at Access Brand Communications — and a fervent sports fan.

Conor Febos is a New York-based account director at Access Brand Communications — and an avid Manchester United fan.

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