COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

BAD DECISIONS AND BIG APOLOGIES BY PREMIER LEAGUE TITANS

I made the catastrophic error of drinking coffee after 6.30 pm. I knew it was a bad idea, but did it anyway. The coffee was Vietnamese. Delicious – but kept me awake all night.

Thanks to the gods of bad choices that I did. Last night was monumental for news – and given my time zone I would have missed the drama in blissful sleep. But the story that has most captured my imagination over the last few days came to a spectacular conclusion in the wee small hours of April 21. This was the rise and fall of the European Super League. Not since Coca Cola’s launch of Dasani Water in the UK has something so hyped gone so badly wrong so quickly.

For those who haven’t been glued to their TVs and Twitter feeds over the last few days, a rebel alliance of billionaire club-owners and investment bankers from across Europe planted their flag in football and claimed it for themselves with the establishment of the European Super League. It was a coup d’état of sorts against the establishment of European football – as this cabal of influential clubs and owners decided to create a rival football tournament designed to more closely resemble the ‘no relegation, no problem’ American style of sport. It had been mooted for years, but nobody saw the announcement coming. It was a sneak attack, designed to wrong-foot the opposition, a mere day before reform announcements were made concerning the Uefa Champions League.

The content and timing of the announcement was designed to rattle some very established cages. And it succeeded.

ESL 1 – UEFA/FIFA – 0

The 48-hours after the announcement were dramatic to say the least. Throughout, I had been glued to my screen at the furore it had created – fascinated by how it would play out. I realised that it was going to be an epic soap opera and a lesson in how to get your way – for one side or another. When sport and money collide, somebody wins, somebody dies.

Immediately following the announcements, the wagons began circling. Former players Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher – both defenders by nature – went on the attack, using their platform as pundits and commentators on Sky Sports to agree on something (for once) and spent the entire day excoriating the 12 clubs that signed up as founder members of the league (especially those they used to play for), their owners and the ESL. It was scorched earth stuff and it set the tone for what was to come.

Neville said: “It’s an absolute disgrace and we have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league. Manchester United aren’t even in the Champions League, neither are Arsenal – you watched them earlier today, they’re an absolute shambles of a football club at the moment, Tottenham aren’t in the Champions League at the moment, and they want a God-given right to be in there?

“The motivation is greed. My reaction earlier on wasn’t an emotional reaction. Deduct them all points tomorrow, put them at the bottom of the league and take the money off them. Seriously you have to stamp on this.”

Neville wasn’t alone in this opinion – not a single football pundit I listened to, bought into the idea of the ESL. Moreover, they had a platform to make their sentiments known and by God did they? Not half! The counterattack was on. 

ESL 1 – UEFA/FIFA – 1

And then it got political. The UK government weighed in, proclaiming that everything should be done to protect the Premier League. Even royalty joined the fray. When Prince William, the future king of Great Britain and Northern Ireland –also president of the Football Association and Aston Villa supporter – spoke out there was more than a little trouble on the horizon. His view:

From the highest to the lowest, opposition was gathering at pace. And yet, the ESL said nothing. They had no rebuttal prepared. There was nobody speaking up for the new tournament – no one on TV being interviewed about its merits. No one risked a head above the parapet. Instead, the ESL put their efforts into litigation – sending letters to the presidents of Fifa and Uefa issuing notice of legal proceedings in European courts designed to block any sanctions the two governing bodies might try to enforce. I think we can call that one an own goal.

 ESL – 1 UEFA/FIFA – 2

And then we found out where the money was coming from.

JP Morgan. American money – the kind of money that lays waste to tradition in pursuit of profit. JP Morgan itself has a bit of a PR problem. It is a name associated with things like out of court settlements, fines, and manipulating the foreign exchange markets. Stories popped up in both left and right-wing press about JP Morgan and they weren’t flattering.

Nils Pratley in the Guardian wrote: “It is only a fortnight since the chief executive (of JP Morgan), Jamie Dimon, was warbling at length about his bank’s sense of purpose. ‘When JP Morgan Chase enters a community, we take great pride in being a responsible citizen at the local level – just like the local bakery,’ he claimed in his annual letter to shareholders. It is hard to spot any sense of localism or community in the backing of an exercise in short-term greed that is grubby even by modern football’s standards.”

With the financial media now on the case too, hiding places for the ESL were getting fewer and further – and still the ESL appeared to be without countermeasures.

 ESL – 1 UEFA/FIFA – 3

Then we got down to the nitty-gritty of the problem. The owners hadn’t spoken to anyone. Not a single stakeholder outside the boardrooms seemed to have been involved in, or even informed of the decision-making process. In press conferences it was clear that not a single manager at the ‘Big Six’ participating clubs from the English Premier League knew what the hell was going on – the owners had failed to communicate anything for fear of a leak – and the managers were clearly not happy about being thrown under the bus. It was a catastrophic error by the owners, and frankly, a PR disaster. 

Football managers like to speak their minds – and to a man (apart from Jose Mourinho, who was fired from Tottenham earlier that day) – they came out to voice not only their displeasure at being asked questions about a subject of which they knew nothing, but also their displeasure at the notion of the ESL as a whole.

Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool, a long-time critic of the ESL, repeated his standpoint saying: “My opinion on the ESL hasn’t changed”.

Pep Guardiola of Manchester City: “Sport? It is not sport when the relation between effort and success and reward doesn’t exist. It is not a sport. It is not a sport if success is already guaranteed. It is not a sport if it doesn’t matter if you lose.”

In speaking their minds, the managers had set the tone and following on, players began to feel confident that their opinions could be heard without retribution – and they spoke up – with astonishing eloquence and brevity in some case. Another nail was in the coffin of the European Super League. 

Of particular note was Jordan Henderson – the captain at Liverpool who spoke on behalf of the whole team: “We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen, This is our collective position. Our commitment to this football club and its supporters is absolute and unconditional. You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (The team’s anthem.) In 33 words, he left nothing to the imagination – no room for inference or misinterpretation. It was a brilliantly crafted statement.

ESL – 1 UEFA/FIFA – 4

ESL representative making a statement

When finally we started to see a response from the ESL top brass, it got me thinking… is late better than never? President of the ESL Florentino Pérez appeared on Spanish TV and grandiosely declared that the Super League is here to “save football”. He added that clubs are on “edge of ruin”, and that “by 2024 we’re dead”. He also mentioned in the interview that matches in the Super League may be shorter! So now they weren’t just tinkering with the format, they are now fiddling with how the game is played.

But here is the real head-scratcher. Perez could not have been under any illusion that the ESL’s PR problem was in England, yet he appears on Spanish TV? It was all looking a bit desperate.

ESL 1 – UEFA/FIFA 5

(Perez shoots into an open goal, hits the post – ball ricochets back all the way into ESL’s undefended net. Disaster.)

To many of the faithful though, football either didn’t need saving, or if it did, certainly not through this method – indeed, by this point the narrative had shifted to saving football from the very same billionaire owners who tried and failed to pull off their coup. They are the ones who turned clubs into PLCs and leveraged them against the rest of their businesses to the tune of billions. The perception is that the ESL and are self-appointed fireman looking to be heroes by putting out the very fires they started.

By keeping the ESL project under wraps, all the English teams had forgotten their own mission, vision, and values: those of the league as an entity and the country as a whole. They did not sell their idea to the people who would prop up the entire scheme – the fans. Football for all its money and superficial glamour is essentially a working man’s pastime. These clubs were built on the backs of coal miners and longshoremen, and the ESL and the English ‘Big Six’ treated them with total disdain – simply by pretending they didn’t matter. Banners popping up around grounds stated it very clearly – “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich”.

blue is the colour

The ‘Big Six’ clubs and their owners were now in the firing line of the ‘Other 14’ – the teams who were marginalised and denigrated by the establishment of the ESL, and they began to rally, collectively releasing a statement against such a move. Everton and Southampton released independent statements about the sanctity of football – proud traditions, the spirit of fairness, respect, and the love of their fans.

By this point the negative press had become an insurmountable PR onslaught. Clubs that signed up to the ESL experiment for the sake of it, rather than because they wanted or needed to, walked away from the table. Those clubs were Manchester City, 2021 Premier League champions-elect, and Chelsea. By now, the writing was pretty much on the wall and it didn’t take long for the other teams to follow suit. I watched the dominoes fall in real time. It was glorious theatre.

And now all these clubs – Manchester Utd, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool – have some making up to do. Like naughty children who had egged each other on to deface a historical monument, they are collectively facing the music. Their heads are bowed, looking for someone to blame – a few have pointed to ringleaders and said, “Big boys did it and ran away.” (Manchester City and Chelsea). 

Others have apologised profusely and promised they’ll never do it again (Arsenal and Liverpool). Others, clearly resentful at having been caught out, are fronting it up under the guise of pursuing innovation or having listened to fans’ concerns. (I’m looking at you Man Utd and Spurs). The breakaway league was supported by no one – and worse – these renegade clubs have lost the trust of their whole fan-bases. There are now calls are for more oversight of private ownership of clubs, for some owners to sell up and move on. 

sell up and move on

This is how every failed coup has always failed – no planning, no strategy beyond “We’re in charge now”. No counter argument or organised opposition. For a coup to succeed you have to cultivate the support of the people. Not only has it not worked in this case, it has backfired spectacularly.

Now the remaining European clubs have to decide how they want to proceed. The ESL isn’t totally dead yet, but it is definitely on life-support following the withdrawal of the English teams. As of now, only Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona remain.

The European Super League experiment will be a case study in PR communication management for years to come. I have enjoyed every minute of its meteoric rise and catastrophic fall – particularly as I don’t like football much. I urge anyone in the PR and communications game to look closely at what went wrong, and pay attention to how these clubs respond to the criticism they have received.

The idea was always controversial, but was it always doomed to fail? I don’t think so. Had there been a more unified voice, a leader to better convey the ideas and principles of the league, it may have won over some of its key detractors and survived the storm long enough to make it work. As it is now, it is hard to imagine a bigger or more thorough omnishambles.

The clubs involved, with tails tucked firmly between their legs, are no doubt in full crisis management mode. Memories are long in the Premier League, and no one will forget this fiasco in a hurry.

FINAL SCORE

ESL 1 – UEFA/FIFA – 6

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