The shambolic collapse of the European Super League, which barely lasted 48 hours, is shaping up to be one of the great brand positioning gaffs of our time.
At the time of writing, with all six English clubs pulling out of the project and the remaining Italian and Spanish teams expected to follow – despite the best efforts of the Juventus and Real Madrid ownership – the concept of a ring-fenced, invite-only breakaway league looks badly misjudged at best. At worst, it is being viewed as an arrogant embezzlement of decades of traditions, values and experience.
Whether this failed coup proves to be European football’s great Franz Ferdinand moment, a turning point that will change the game forever, will become more apparent over the coming months and years.
For now, there’s the growing sense of a breakdown of trust, one that could go on to affect not just the clubs involved, but the high-profile brands and commercial partners associated with them.
It was notable how, despite all the talk of brand purpose, so few sponsors were willing or able to gauge the mood of consumers and fans during the past couple of days. Only Merseyside-based luxury watchmaker Tribus made any sort of move, ending its agreement as Liverpool’s official timekeeping partner.
Owners have realised that, although they own all the shares at a club, they don’t really own the brand.
Hugo Hensley, Brand Finance
Last night, the brand said it could not support the ESL, adding: “Our values are at the forefront of everything we do therefore we will be withdrawing from this partnership. Football belongs to the fans and unites us all; it was never intended to benefit the few.”
Liverpool’s subsequent withdrawal from the proposed league hasn’t been matched by Tribus, who instead today issued a follow-up statement reiterating its stance and expressing hope that “the owners of Liverpool Football Club can repair this situation for the greater good of football, the club, the fans and our city”.
Clearly for Tribus the rich brand association such a relationship offers, the ideals of heritage and community long part of the club’s carefully cultivated profile, are tarnished beyond repair.
A reckoning for the C-suite
It’s notable that the company singled out Liverpool’s owners, rather than the club as a complete entity.
As Brand Finance’s head of sports services Hugo Hensley points out, plotting Big Six boardroom members reportedly keeping playing staff out of the loop has inadvertently given the clubs a get-out clause, albeit one that means C-suite heads will have to roll. Just last night Manchester United executive vice-chairnman Ed Woodward, who was involved in the discussions, announced he will step down at the end of 2021.
“Managers and players can say that they had nothing to do with this, that it was all down to ownership,” Hensley explains.
“It’s a bit of a mix among those owners who have already been under pressure, like at Arsenal and Manchester United, where I think there will be a few sacrificial lambs maybe, and owners elsewhere realising that, although they own all the shares at the club, they don’t really own the brand.”
Brands need to be saying that they’re going to work with the clubs to make sure that heritage is respected.
Hugo Hensley, Brand Finance
Those in that second group may well want out now that they’ve seen their plans apparently shelved. Certainly, any big decisions that have to be made within English football’s top tier will have to be sanctioned by a far wider set of stakeholders than ever before.
Of course, pretty much all the other Premier League clubs are still keen on the idea of pushing the product globally. Hensley predicts that already established tournaments, such as the FIFA World Club Cup, could now get a reboot.
In the meantime, brands have a part to play in the healing process as clubs look to regain trust and win back fans, just at the moment when so many are looking forward to returning to attending live games.
The language being used by some of the clubs suggests they understand the scale of the risk to brand reputation and fan trust.
Announcing its exit from the ESL, Arsenal said it had no intention to cause “such distress” and that the board wanted to restore faith in the project, adding: “As a result of listening to you and the wider football community over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League. We made a mistake, and we apologise for it.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool owner John W Henry issued a personal video apology to the fans, players and manager Jürgen Klopp.
The way to build trust, suggests Hensley, is by going back to the very stuff that attracted fans to the sport in the first place. “It’s accentuating those elements like trust and fairness that have really been shot back by the idea of a self-selected, controlled, closed league,” he says.
“Brands need to be saying that they’re going to work with the clubs to make sure that heritage is respected. The need to reinforce this idea that they’re there for the fans, that they’re about community and standing together.”