European Super League: What the media & marketing industry can learn from the mess

As the week comes to an end, the clean-up of the failed European Super League has only just begun. It is more than likely there will be long-term consequences from the very short saga. There will certainly be lessons learned, not least for the media and marketing industry. Mumbrella's Damian Francis asked a group of industry leaders what they have taken out of it from an industry perspective.

On Sunday 18 April, around 1pm BST, football fans around the world (the ones that were awake at least) began to hear the news that there was a break away in the works. Reports that clubs from England, Italy and Spain had joined together to take part in something called the European Super League (ESL) backed by US bank JP Morgan were raising eyebrows around the world, not least those of senior officials at UEFA, the European football governing body.

As it transpired,  the European Super League was not only real, it was far advanced in its planning and had managed to attract some of the best teams from the three countries, including Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus and more.

Over the next few days the drama that ensued was worthy of a US soap, with backlash from the fans, governing bodies, the UK government and even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Teams quickly withdrew from the competition and almost as quickly as it had become something real, the European Super League was all but dead.

From this week’s events, there are myriad lessons that can be pulled out of it for media and marketing professionals – from brand purpose to listening to consumers, crisis communications and marketing strategies.

Here are a few of those lessons, delivered by senior industry leaders, all with an understanding of not just the business of media and marketing but the business of the multi billion dollar industry that is football.


Richard Curtis – CEO, Futurebrand Australia
When you help create something, it means more to you.

When you don’t, you feel disenfranchised and all kinds of hell can break loose.

At its simplest, that’s the situation with this week’s announcement of a European Super League: a lack of collaboration, let alone consultation.

The truth is there has been a sense that this has been a long time coming. There is also the perception that UEFA and FIFA are not necessarily much better. Not to suggest they set a precedent that excuses ESL’s approach but to highlight that fans have felt the game slipping away from them for a few years now. To change the spirit of competition at the heart of the game’s DNA by removing the possibility of regulation was simply too much for fans to bear.

For all the post-announcement talk of supporting the “whole football pyramid”, the idea of a super league never had the support of the people who prop up that pyramid week-in-week out: the fans. What’s more, it very publicly exposed the behaviours of some of the clubs involved in ways that discredited their very purpose. The process made a mockery of the clubs’ fans and liars of their owners. You’ll never walk alone, John Henry?

No-one necessarily disagrees with the need for change. The problems have come with the disconnected approach to managing that change.

It’s a challenge that every team, brand or business inevitably encounters when facing something new. ‘Innovate or die’ is an oft-quoted mantra in modern business, but executing the change is often the process that kills the innovation.

The role of people in the change process can never be underestimated. In my experience, there are three critical stages to leading, managing and communicating change to bring your people, customers or fans along together with you.

Firstly, understand their needs, motivations and barriers to change.

Secondly, identify the role that different groups of people might need or want to play in driving or supporting the change – whether it’s hands-on collaboration or periodic consultation.

And thirdly, engage those very people in delivering and even championing the change.

Football will change. Just not like this.


Venessa Hunt, general manager, Think Premium Digital
On paper, the European Super League was designed to ‘protect’ the future of football – or, at least, it was marketed this way. But the billionaire owners, who have been losing money due to COVID and were looking to find ways to cover debts, forgot one thing that we know well in the marketing industry: they forgot to ask the fans what they thought.

We call it ‘market orientation’ and it’s a business approach wherein product development and creation are focused on satisfying the needs of consumers.

The creation of the European Super League was the exact opposite of that and appears to have been created for profit. Consumers understand that businesses need to make money, but they aren’t willing to be collateral damage. They want a value exchange, to be part of the process.

Think of the backlash brands experience when they change the recipe for a soft drink, the thickness of a chip, the size of a chocolate bar or, heaven forbid, remove a long-established marketing mascot. Take that and add generations of passion and belief. What you get is a recipe for disaster.

In the end, the League was brought down by the heart of football: the fans. The clubs had no choice but to withdraw. The fans had spoken out against a league that goes against the very principle of English football: you earn your spot. Without the fans, many of those clubs would never have become the global mega-brands that they are today.

To exacerbate this even further, the creators of the Super League did not consult or communicate with the managers and players, people that could have been their biggest advocates.

When Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp was interviewed, he said: “We were not involved in any processes, not the players, not me, we didn’t know about it.”

Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson tweeted: “We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen. This is our collective position.”

The importance of having your teams and advocates understand the need for change before thrusting it upon them cannot be underestimated. Even if the direction is being made for all the right reasons, as humans, we are resistant to change, so involving our teams in the process is critical. Advocates can turn to detractors very quickly.

There was going to be a significant impact on the players and managers. The breakaway clubs would have been banished from all competitions, domestic and international, and weren’t even given an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process.

The resignations have begun, and already there are calls for the owners of the six Premier League Clubs to step down.

Simply put, you cannot have a brand if you have no fans. You cannot have a business with no teams to run it.


Chris Walton – managing director, Nunn Media
“We want our cold nights in Stoke” read the placard of a Chelsea fan protesting against the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge on Monday.

In seven words this summed up why the League failed.

There was such a chasm, such a monstrous gap in understanding between owners and fans that this initiative was doomed to fail. What they thought they had to sell couldn’t have been more different from what the fans actually buy, at least the diehard turn-up-on-a-Tuesday-in-Stoke type.

Of course, in marketing land such a mistake would never be made would it? A canny brand would launch a new variant or product aimed at ‘the international market’ in order to leave its core/loyal consumers to continue to enjoy its legacy product wouldn’t it? Well sometimes not. Perhaps this was football’s New Coke moment.

Sometimes there is a complete lack of insight, or maybe worse – wrong insight – into consumers that leads to shockingly bad decisions being made. Remember iSnack 2.0?

The European Super League fiasco is a great example of all the numbers stacking up, of healthy acquisition potential being identified and long term financial projections looking good, but with a core idea or insight being so far off the mark that all is torpedoed. There is a message in here, not least in these times when the spotlight is being put on why and how pitching occurs.

Will this be the end of the matter for football? Probably not. While there have been numerous passionately written articles in the UK press lambasting what occurred and lauding the ‘real’ fans uprising, there have been equally well written pieces in esteemed titles such as the Wall Street Journal opining it is only a matter of time until football is ‘Americanised’.

That isn’t an impossible task, but it will be hard to do. As a long-suffering Arsenal fan there was 15 long years between me going to my first ever game and seeing them win a league title. The last-minute win away to Liverpool in 1989 was one of the most exhilarating moments I have ever experienced.

However, as soon as the dust settled, I realised that just as important as Michael Thomas’ chip over Bruce Grobbelaar at Anfield was a goal three weeks earlier by Martin Hayes away to Middlesbrough (1-nil to the Arsenal…!). Yes, the title was won at Liverpool, but it was earned at Middlesbrough. Stick that up your behind European Super League!

Di Cecco

Diana Di Cecco – CMO, 8 Star Energy
Declaration: I am a Manchester United supporter.

This week, balls have literally been dropped. But instead of landing, they have been propelled and launched back like grenades. There has never been wider disparity in the opinions of club owners, managers, players and fans with regard to an announcement, in this case, of “The European Super League” – it is one of the biggest fails I have ever witnessed. It’s not because it’s a breakaway – breakaways can work, the AFL did it in 1897 with a group of eight clubs and there are many other examples that support it. The problem with this situation is that it disregarded fans – the very people who keep clubs alive.

Change is generally derived from ‘need’ – I fail to see how the development of the new league fulfilled this. Instead, it is blatantly obvious that this was, in fact, a ‘want’. A want to privatise and commoditise a sport that exists at the expense of its fans. Suffice to say that football fans of the European and UK kind are a special breed – they bleed football.

Europe and the UK are still in the midst of a pandemic with much economic and societal uncertainty. And I have a series of questions I would put to the European Super League Company. Was now the best time to launch such an idea? What consideration was given to the timing? Did you think about fan sentiment and how people might be feeling about change right now? Did you conduct focus groups or surveys to understand how people might receive such a league? With so many leagues already in operation, why was it necessary to create this one? And before they return serve with a wishy-washy response about the ‘best teams’, I would remind them that The World Cup already exists to see the cream of the crop play this wonderful sport. I would also tell them that their timing was appalling and so was the idea.

I appreciate that sport needs to be commercial. But without the hearts and minds of the fans, like any brand, it’s nothing. Just like brands exist for customers, clubs exist for fans. Make them part of the process or you might find them spending their time (and money) on other past times, like cricket. And nobody wants that.


Gerry McCusker – owner, The Drill Crisis Simulator
Remember when we thought the debacle of out-of-touch celebs misjudging public response to their tales of lockdown woe, couldn’t ever be out-clustered?

Well hold my replica team top, as an elitist coup by the financiers of football’s mooted European Super League (ESL) proved more tone-deaf than a Zoom rendition of ‘Imagine’.

The ESL sought to change football from an allegedly even-playing field competition to an endless stream of glamorous exhibition matches. But in dispensing with fairness, equity and relegation, the ESL off-sided the wider world game community.

Talk of a lucrative Women’s Super League – a conceptual flag-flyer if ever I saw one – weren’t effectively prioritised or communicated as a key part of floating and test-marketing this revolutionary idea. Test messaging is a key part of PR 101.

Not only was the ESL’s game plan all wrong, but its match strategy had all the nuance of 1980’s Wimbledon; a route one, right up the park, brutal attempt to burst the net.

And burst the ‘net they did – the Internet, that is – copping a narrative backlash, bottled up after months of footie frustration and no ‘wankers in the black’ to vent our ire at.

Even the shortest-sighted of refs could have seen how this move ‘failed to take the pulse of stakeholder sentiment’ or of the incumbent power-brokers unwilling to relinquish their cash-cow.

It was Glasgow Celtic’s legendary Jock Stein who said: “Football without fans is nothing.” PR-wise, Big Jock was talking stakeholder engagement and the involvement of key influencers who used to generate the buzz and excitement of every match.

Sadly, tho’, Stein’s quote was given way before armchair spectators had every match, every angle, every chant, every replay on the planet on multiple screens in their homes.

Football as a spectacle doesn’t need the fans – but it does need their streaming subscription monies. Personally, I love donning my Western United scarf and going to games in person; Plus watching the highlights package afterwards – what a luxury.

As we fans already tolerate some amounts of financial doping and commercial exploitation, can our beautiful game really rebuff the inevitable battles over football’s future?

Probably not if the ESL runs its next PR campaign with even adequate amounts of research, strategy, stakeholder lobbying and good message management.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.