One of the top stories in the news this week was about football. One of my true loves. The failure of the European Super League was as quick as it was dramatic. I couldn’t help but watch everything unfold and think ‘How have they got this SO WRONG from a marketing perspective?’
There are a million ways to analyse this, but I enjoy Mark Ritson’s diagnosis, strategy and tactics model. Ritson speaks of the three stages of diagnosis, strategy and tactics as figures that multiply against each other. For example, you get a score of 10 in diagnosis, 10 in strategy and 10 in tactics, then you’re at level 1,000 marketing. If you get three x three x five, you’re at 45.
It pays to get the foundations right in understanding what your market wants, as that can have a huge effect further on down the line. That’s why market orientation is vital, even if it’s something we don’t spend enough time on.
Chances are at least some research took place. For example, some clubs (notably Manchester United) engaged in speaking with their fan forums. However, it appears it was for show, rather than to glean real insight, given the timing of these decisions relative to the consultations.
The new plans treated these so-called ‘legacy fans’ with contempt. And, when you do that to a passionate fanbase there is noise.
Instead, the European Super League was a solution to a problem only the clubs and their boards cared about. Marketing suicide because all of a sudden, you’re solving a need for a company rather than the customer.
The problem with identifying the wrong problem is that it then filters down into every other bit of marketing activity in the strategy and tactics stages.
So, what could have been better? At this stage, the answer is simple: listen to your fans and customers.
Fundamentally as marketers we do have to drive business results, but taking the time to listen could have yielded 100 different solutions to making more money, quicker and easier to implement than the European Super League.
To go back to the multiplication, point, the Super League started with a zero for market orientation and so was already doomed to failure. As described, we’re now working with a poison chalice, a problem no one else cares about. But there were more mistakes. Let’s look at the strategy by focusing on two key elements.
One of the arguments Real Madrid president Florentino Perez put forward in favour of the European Super League was that young people were dropping out of football, saying: “Young people are no longer interested in football. They have other platforms on which to distract themselves.”
From this, we can gather the target market was both young people, but also undoubtedly a broader international market, demonstrated by the only official press release about the Super League being timed to benefit US time zones.
The mistake here is that there are some 4 billion fans of football worldwide, which means to say, quite a lot. The new plans treated these so-called ‘legacy fans’ with contempt. And, when you do that to a passionate fanbase there is noise.
Only Covid stopped larger in-person protests, but 1,000 angry Chelsea fans still caused a delay in the kick-off for Tuesday’s game against Brighton. YouGov reported a 30% drop in positive sentiment towards Arsenal (one of the proposed participants) after the announcement on Sunday. The noise from those excluded was huge, leaving the clubs reeling and billionaires apologising to the fanbases of old.
The European Super League was a solution to a problem only the clubs and their boards cared about. Marketing suicide because all of a sudden, you’re solving a need for a company rather than the customer.
Ritson suggests that part of strategy is deciding what not to do as much as it is what to do. Clubs buckled under the noise of the people they weren’t targeting, either on purpose or through misplaced ignorance that the legacy fans would stick with the club no matter what.
Brutal as it sounds, if this strategy was to be pursued to its full degree, then clubs would have resolved in advance not to worry about the legacy fans and simply focus on the new generation.
Instead, their resolve was (rightly) tested. As former Manchester United player turned Sky pundit Gary Neville put it so well, they lived up to the reputation of “professional bottle merchants”, having tried to have their cake and eat it by maintaining both sets of audiences.
The second strategic element that was really amiss was that of messaging. The official press release announcing the league mentioned “finances”, “economics”, “revenues” or “commercials” seven separate times and “better football” just twice.
This reflects the poison in the diagnosis stage and the misstep in the targeting which results in a message that sings of nothing but greed. This, again, speaks against a dominant narrative in the sport that it was created by working-class people, for working-class people.
Just like you can’t exercise yourself out of a bad diet, there is no product that will move your customers to acceptance if your message is simply that ‘we’re in this for ourselves’. The message could have been written for the benefit of the customer, not those clearly looking to embark on a cash grab. ‘You’, not ‘we’.
At this stage we’re not even multiplying numbers by numbers anymore, it’s just turd x poop. But, somehow, they made this super poo worse for themselves through a comms plan that didn’t work.
A quick look at the three of the 4 P’s shows holes all over the place. A product no one wants, being sold to an audience already feeling stretched at current prices, with promotion that was limited to a press release with the wrong messages and an unclear plan for how it could be consumed, allowing the suspicion of more money being required.
Internal comms isn’t fashionable, but it is important and this is perhaps one of the key elements to how things ended up playing out. It was clear that the only people who knew about the plans were the owners.
Managers and players alike found out only hours before the announcement, and were then left out to dry in post-match interviews. Some refused to comment, some spoke out against the plans like Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, the managers of Liverpool and Manchester City respectively. In either case – the dominant narrative was one of confusion, lack of transparency and ‘I’m finding out at the same time as you’.
This was dangerous. The YouTube clip of Guardiola discussing the plans currently sits at well over 1,000,000 views and this is the narrative that was formed early on. Neville became an angry voice early on, speaking to a live audience and then published on YouTube for another 3,000,000 views.
Official bodies weren’t briefed either. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin called Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward a “snake” over the plans and threatened, along with the Premier League and FIFA, that any player taking part in the competition would face instant expulsion from international competitions. This could have been avoided had there been dialogue about the plans behind closed doors, instead of it playing out in public.
Speak to your people and get them on board, before going out to the world. Particularly if they are going to be the people asked about the idea in public forums from that point onwards.
This whole thing was a mess and frankly was from the off. However, some basic marketing fundamentals could have been followed for a marginally more interesting result. At this level, the mistakes are inexcusable.
And, while greed was ultimately the reason everything failed, there are lessons we can all take away as marketers about making sure we have an audience who wants our stuff, we’re communicating it clearly and with tactics that align to the messages we want to put out into the world.
Joe Glover is founder of The Marketing Meetup.