Arvind Hickman
Apr 20, 2021

Unforgivable, tone-deaf land grab’ could ‘decimate football’s legacy’

Communications experts have slammed the lack of stakeholder engagement and the timing of an announcement that 12 elite football clubs want to form a European Super league.

Twelve clubs, including Liverpool FC, plan to walk alone and away from the UEFA Champions League (Photo: Getty Images)
Twelve clubs, including Liverpool FC, plan to walk alone and away from the UEFA Champions League (Photo: Getty Images)

The announcement of the breakaway European football league, at 11.30 pm on Sunday, has been criticised for failing to consult key stakeholders—especially football fans—on the same day thousands were allowed to watch a football match in person for the first time in a year.

Several PR pros warn that the backlash to the announcement could permanently damage the relationship clubs have with fans, while others argue that this move follows a familiar path of billionaire club owners alienating their supporter bases in an effort to line their own pockets.

They also cannot fathom how tone-deaf the launch statement and clubs’ social media efforts have been, and bemoan the radio silence from club owners to fans and the media. In the words of some, this was an “unmitigated PR disaster”.

Although some contend this move by powerful clubs—which include Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City—may amount to little more than posturing in an attempt to strike a better deal with UEFA over Champions League revenue, the exercise may have irreparably tarnished these football brands already.

According to media reports, comms relating to the announcement are being handled by iNHouse Communications, the consultancy run by Theresa May’s former comms director Katie Perrior and former broadcast journalist Jo Tanner.

PRWeek asked figures in the PR industry for their reaction to the way the announcement has been handled and the potential fallout.

Steve Martin
Global CEO, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment

The comms were clinical and cold. All about finance without clear benefit to their vital audience, the fans. They will have expected this, but it was all faceless, so could hide behind words. Next few days will see how real it all is. It seems so much more advanced than being done for purely a negotiating position on the current Uefa deal.

Paddy Hobbs
Director, Catchweight

The way this has been communicated ultimately only serves to reinforce the fear most fans have deep down: that their billionaire owners don’t care about the clubs they purchased, and that football stopped being about them a long time ago.

The fact this is all happening when fans aren’t in stadiums and unable to communicate their opposition in a traditional sense, either by boycotting games, chants or organised protests, smacks of ensuring supporters don’t have a collective voice and that their opinions don’t matter.

Sara Collinge
Managing director, Don’t Cry Wolf

With fans being allowed into stadiums again, yesterday should have been a great day for football. Now it feels tainted, tone-deaf and characterised by silly, political posturing on all sides. Fifa was right to come out and suggest cool, calm dialogue, but the cat is already out of the bag and, whatever happens now, the eyes of the world are watching. The Super League organisers face an uphill battle from a comms perspective; when everyone else is incredibly critical, how can they turn the debate around?

Adam Raincock
Co-founder, The Space Between

What the past 12 months has shown us is that the phrase ‘football is nothing without fans’ is little more than a hollow platitude. What yesterday’s move has confirmed is that under that veneer is a ruthless money-making machine that is motivated by self-interest. When you set this against the backdrop of the financial fallout of what has happened around the world it seems particularly distasteful.

The unintended consequence of this will be reputational. It’s the old analogy of ‘don’t air your dirty laundry in public’, as this story will shine the spotlight on everyone involved in the game. From the failings of Financial Fair Play, the clubs’ hostile way of getting what you want and the power and money that lies beneath the glamour and goals on the field.

I can’t see any of the parties coming out of this looking good, but will be this moment that changes everything? Probably not. Football has shown itself time and time again to be resilient to reputational damage, but the timing of this as the world dusts itself off from the pandemic will cause more scrutiny and a stronger public reaction from fans.

Koray Camgoz
Director of communications and marketing, PRCA

The Super League announcement represents an unforgivable land grab by the world's richest owners. The project imperils the basic principles of sport, prioritising revenue-generation over sporting merit. But the Super League’s catastrophic approach to stakeholder engagement has further isolated fans, players and existing football sponsors at a critical point in time. The majority in the game have been vehemently opposed to these plans for years. Rather than consult and engage those key stakeholders, the Super League has colluded under the guise of a pandemic to railroad changes that threaten to decimate football’s legacy and erode the principles upon which the game was established.

Tottenham Hotspur parted company with manager Jose Mourinho only hours after he guided the club into the European Super League (Photo: Getty Images)

Joe Burdon
Senior account director, The Romans

While the news of a Super League isn’t exactly a shock (football’s soothsayer, Arsène Wenger, predicted this more than 10 years ago), the idea that a brand you love can betray you in this way certainly is.

Putting aside how the bastions of integrity and competition, UEFA and the Premier League, have become the overnight ‘good guys’, the comms focus here is on the clubs. For our clients we will hold focus groups, or monitor social media for potential sentiment around business announcements. But football clubs feel confident making seismic decisions without such sensitivities, as traditionally their customers (aka fans) have backed the club with their support and cash regardless.

In this case, however, the Big Six (lol, btw) have seen their relationship with fans irreparably damaged. Which is sad, as it isn’t the clubs making this decision—it is the owners, whose nonchalant separation from what makes their ‘business’ so special is what hurts the most.

Amy Grantham
Founder, Neon Brand Communications

So much of the romance in football comes from the way that it is organised in Europe. If you look at the UEFA Champions League, there’s associated risk and reward at all levels, with players and supporters able to have hopes and dreams for their club. The Super League takes this dream away, ensuring that the big clubs keep the big money and that the smaller clubs are never given a chance to rise to the very top.

Fans are everything to football and this move is an absolute PR own goal that many will be unlikely to forgive, and there’s little messaging that will disguise the true incentive for the clubs involved. I pity the comms directors at the clubs involved, who have the thankless task of trying to make this look like a positive move, while inwardly knowing what this means for fans and the wider sport.

Alex Goldup
Communications consultant to local government

From both a comms strategy and common-sense perspective, it seems extraordinary that no one from the Super League or any of the clubs involved was able or willing to be interviewed, or could set out the case for support as part of their set-piece announcement.

Of course, there is only so much comms can do when the substance is so poor—and the reception would still have been overwhelmingly negative. However, the absence of anyone prepared to argue the case for the Super League is still baffling. Perceptions form quickly and this will have contributed to a perception of arrogance and aloofness.

Lorna O’Neill
Director and founder, Surge Communications

As a lifelong Liverpool FC season ticket holder, this news is devastating; as a communications consultant for over 15 years, these “super” clubs now have a reputational mountain to climb.

Everything from how and when this was announced to the lack of engagement with fans is the antithesis of how change communication should be managed. I suspect the views of the managers and players have been disregarded too. An organisation is nothing without its people—you can say as many buzzwords and pithy lines as you like about how football is nothing without fans, but actions speak louder than words and perception is reality.

How on earth do the owners propose to move forward with this plan now that they have lost the people? This terrible communications strategy is as bad as the obvious greed that underpins it. I fear the reputational damage will be very long-lasting, if not irreparable.

Thousands of fans celebrate what could be Liverpool's final Champions League victory. The club has been criticised for not consulting fans ahead of its decision to join a breakway Super League (Photo: Getty Images)

Sue Garrard
Independent advisor, sustainability strategy and communication

It’s obvious that this new Super League idea is driven by greed. My twittersphere is about as far from tracking the game as you can get. Today, it’s as full of scorn and full-on outrage about this as it is about the latest climate science and the Biden/China talks on carbon.

As the world struggles to get back on its feet (and not doing too well), with the three-million mark for Covid-19 deaths announced, whole industries on their knees, mental health and economic damage it will take a generation to repair—here’s football looking to create a super-premium sector worth squillions. How out of tune with what supporters and the world needs can you get?

Mike Kirwan
Managing director, RMS

They could well be using this as leverage to negotiate even better TV deals and revenue from the current format—we don’t know yet—but the way they’ve gone about it is comparable to a tank rolling over an empty tin can.

It’s myopic and looks misjudged at the very least. Seemingly no consultation with any fans and I’m wondering how much the players and managers even knew this was coming. Jürgen Klopp spoke out about this very format in 2019 and he was steadfastly against the idea. Could he now be one of many Premier League managers who feel obliged to step into the media spotlight once again to confront the clubs' owners? Who is more important to keep onside—the club hierarchy or the fans?

In truth, there are no guilt-free parties here. Except the fans. They will be hardest hit. They will be the ones who feel manipulated and ignored. They will see the game they love disintegrate into a melee of worthless competitions and exhibition games… like a closed shop where the financial rewards have already been shared out among those elitist founding members. What will become of the everyday fan then? In a season when fans have already been made to stay away, will this now mean more stay away. And for good.

Sebastian Mathews
Managing Director, EMEA, Cognito Media

The issue is who/what is going to stop it. A lot of people are saying the Premier League needs to ban the clubs, but that’s a huge gamble which would see six of the top brands depart, leaving the league a weaker brand overall. Then Uefa has a poor brand and, quite frankly, it’s a conflict of interest. Likewise Fifa.

The FA could prevent players from competing at a national level, but, like the Premier league, it risks weakening its own product. Of course, they’ll all make the right noises, but that’s not going to be enough. So who will fight this other than the fans?

David Alexander
MD of Calacus

When news broke on Sunday afternoon, there was no immediate statement, giving pundits the opportunity to express their outrage at the proposals, tapping into the consensus that change is always a bad thing in football and echoing the concerns of fans around the country that their clubs are now focused on money over supporters. The narrative was dominated with fury and opposition, ignoring one of the basic tenets of PR: that you don’t leave others to fill the void with negativity when controversial developments take place.

The ESL leaders should have planned a (Zoom) press conference for Sunday afternoon, or at least shared a video news release as soon as the news was broken. The fact that just three ESL executives—Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez, Manchester United’s Joel Glazer and Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Juventus—are quoted in the release also felt like something of a mis-step.

While the outrage is widespread, representatives of each club should have made their own comments, on their own websites, speaking to their own fanbase. How must it feel for Liverpool fans that United’s Glazer is quoted in a press release on their own website? By avoiding the scrutiny of press interviews, the ESL gives further credence to the impression that this is all about money and money alone.

Molly Geddes
Campaign Executive, BrandContent

Devoted football fans, who will be looking to their Big Six club for reassurance today, will receive very little clarity. In any big football club’s crisis communications strategy, putting the club’s most important stakeholder, the fans, at ease should be the main objective. The statements provided by the Big Six give no answer to any of the questions or worries that many fans have. In fact, a quick view of Manchester United’s social media platforms suggests it’s business as usual, and the club’s statement regarding the ESL is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps this is to avoid an onslaught of opposition from their many million social media followers. However, by not addressing the issue and being transparent in its communications, the club could face an even bigger reputational crisis. It suggests a lot about the severity of the situation that Tottenham Hotspur firing its manager is not even the biggest story in the footballing world today. It’s yet to become clear whether this is a result of Mourinho’s disagreement about the club joining the Super League, or just due to a series of poor results. But nonetheless it’s a great example of burying bad news.

Manchester United's billionaire owners, Joel and Avram Glazer (centre), are believed to be key proponents of the European Super League with Real Madrid's Florentino Pérez (Photo: Getty Images)

Jack Colman
Account manager, Ketchum

In case launching a fan-neglecting breakaway league in the name of making the rich richer wasn’t tone-deaf enough in the aftermath of a global pandemic, the communication from each club laughs in the face of those most disappointed.

Of those that shared the news on Twitter—Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Arsenal—it was the latter that left the sourest taste. We must ask how this proud declaration has made it anywhere a Twitter account with 17.3m followers. Read the room. From a club that has made 55 staff redundant—including popular mascot Gunnersaurus—during the past 12 months, you would expect at least a slither of subtlety in the way this is conveyed. Maybe, as a Chelsea supporter, I should look in the mirror when expecting anything more from elite football.

With this announcement, clubs are betraying centuries of history, rivalry, and support. When both Liverpool and Manchester City include quotes from Joel Glazer—the owner of bitter rivals Manchester United—in their press statements, instead of an explanation from their own, it becomes clear that fans have become secondary to money. You’ll Never Walk Alone has never sounded so quiet.

Mehdi Juma
PR and Content Marketing Manager, Aspen Healthcare

As a life-long Chelsea fan, I thought my beloved club was, sadly, as 'plastic' as it could possibly get, but the events of the past 24 hours have left me speechless, and I'll never view my club in quite the same way again.

In fact, this whole language of it being 'my' club that we passionate fans fall so easily into—it's not really 'our club' is it? This announcement makes that very clear. The clubs—at least those of the Big Six in England—haven't been 'ours' for a long time now, and this news just brings the distance between clubs and fans into sharper focus.

As the announcement of the ESL on a Sunday night in Europe might suggest—is this even aimed at us? We're 'legacy' fans, whereas this announcement and the development of the new ESL is aimed at future fans, those Fifa-loving, YouTube-watching future generations, possibly based in the US and the Far East, with money to spend and who haven't been to a game before. Football clubs have been brands for a while now. This announcement just places a big fat emphasis on that.

Chris Nunn
Digital PR consultant

To use the global pandemic as their almost "excuse" is abhorrent. In fact, it's farcical. Their key point seems to be that the clubs have been hit hard and need help...if anything, the pandemic has only given them more will to pursue the idea. They've finally realised that they don't really need fans in the stadium, when they can bombard a global audience with ads before, during and after games on streams. How the clubs have acted with the main ESL statement and their own statements—or lack of—confusing. To me, it feels like these conversations have been rumbling for years but they reached a crescendo and were thrust upon club media teams. As for the clubs’ reputations, I wouldn't say any of the directors truly care for the community, only the bottom lines and "glory". The people working in the clubs certainly care but the 'higher-ups' rarely do, most fans are just cash cows in their eyes. There is a huge part that I think has also been missed from comms and discussion so far and that's the impact outside of Europe.

Andy Francis
Joint managing director, Performance Communications

The ‘proposed’ new European Super League has gained unanimous disapproval. Fans, former players, governing bodies, and even governments. It’s an unmitigated PR disaster, but is it just a tactic for change? And if so, can the clubs involved repair the damage inflicted? If not, how will they restore their images?

From a PR perspective, they tested the water last October with the news that JP Morgan was in talks to provide $6bn in funding. People heard, but it didn’t create real headlines for change. And while Uefa is changing the Champions League format to answer some of the calls from the clubs, it is deemed not enough.

When you hear club legends like Man United’s Gary Neville and Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher call out their former paymasters as “cynical, money-grabbers… who should be docked points and immediately relegated…”, the positive PR mountain that needs climbing is huge. The coming days and weeks will only see who is really in charge here. Will the fans—those of us who spend our money to be entertained (and disappointed) by our clubs—be heard? Or, if not, will they walk away?

James Swan
Account director, Hope&Glory

From news being leaked during the Man Utd v Burnley game to clubs issuing statements at midnight when they knew they would avoid an immediate pile-on (for a few hours at least), it was pretty obvious the clubs involved knew they were in for a rough time. Furthermore, choosing to communicate something like this at a time when clubs’ supposedly most important audience—their fans—don’t have a voice in stadiums is a pretty cowardly move. It’s another example of how clubs have undermined their own customers in search of global riches. However, taking this approach has totally undermined the League’s reputation as Prime Ministers and FIFA have been able to wade-in sensing an opportunity to position themselves on the side of fans against the clubs. And the backlash that has been triggered is not going to be good news for sponsors either, who don’t like to be associated with bad news—there are going to have to be a lot of reassuring calls from clubs to their financial backers to try and keep them on-board with promises that weathering the storm the clubs have created will pay-off in the long-run.


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