GUEST POST: A critical analysis of the comms of the doomed European Super League

The European Super League idea launched by 12-clubs started with fanfare but within days the six English teams involved quit. Chris Lepkowski who has worked as head of media and content at a Premier League club takes a critical eye at the comms of the sport’s Cuban missile crisis.

It barely lasted 48 hours.

11.11pm, Sunday April 18. “The Super League will open a new chapter for European football,” began the first of many ill-synchronised social media tweets.

By Tuesday 10.55pm, it was game over. Arsenal, one of English football’s gang of six, had stepped out of the confessional with its head bowed: “We made a mistake, and we apologise for it.”

At least they apologised. The others took their time. Liverpool’s John W Henry waited until Wednesday morning to post his 2.27minute mea culpa to ‘LFC’ staff and fans. Too little too late.

On reflection, this will be remembered as the most incredible 48 hours in modern football. This was sport’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a showcase of brinkmanship, a complete lack of awareness and of no appreciation for its paying audience. It was a public relations horror show.

The background

But first, the backstory. In short, continental club football in three countries effectively broke up on Sunday night – for a couple of days at least – to create The European Super League. Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs were ready to leave behind English football to join Italian giants Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. Accompanying them would be Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. So far, so good. Sadly for them, their plans were derailed when Germany’s major clubs – including Bayern Munich – and Paris Saint-Germain opted out. Domestically, a furious fans’ back-lash followed.

This was sport’s Cuban Missile Crisis.

By Tuesday night, the English clubs began to opt back out. Manchester United announced their chief executive Ed Woodward would be leaving.

How did the Super League become the biggest PR own-goal since High Street jeweller Gerald Ratner referred to his low-cost silverware as ‘total crap’?

There were several flashing lights. Firstly, the brand. The Super League website looked worse than a Word Press blog. The logo looked like it had been designed using children’s Scratch Art.

Multiple comms teams

And then there was the make-up of the Communications. Clubs from the five countries – also including the aborted entry of the German and French clubs – were each represented by individual media partners. No Com France and No Com Spain represented the interests of their clubs, while Verini & Associati looked after the Italian clubs. B2P Communications were plotting the German PR assault, with iNHouse leading the media messaging on behalf of the English clubs. I should point out, these are all heavyweights of the communications world. We aren’t dealing with a bedroom-based PR wannabes here, but signposting you to major players in the international comms game with award-winning reputations.

Big-hitters signed-up

iNHouse may sound familiar. They should. They are run by former Downing Street advisor Katie Perrior, who was director of communications on Theresa May’s watch. Ms Perrior led the public relations campaign for Boris Johnson’s successful London Mayoral campaign in 2008, and also worked with Theresa May between September 2016 and April 2017.  The nuances of a heavyweight political landscape might be appropriate for swinging public opinion towards or against a faltering government, but football supporters are simplistic souls. We love our sport because of the colour, the sounds and the smells of the matchday experience. We love our club because it shapes our lives, our friendships, our relationships. The club is an extension of our family. We don’t always like our club; but we always love our club. We have no care for financial models or balance sheets. We treat outsiders with suspicion. The onus is on you, the club, to make us feel welcome. Especially during these times. That was totally lost.

English fans were forgotten

Yet iNHouse were immediately pitching the wrong message to the wrong audience – the tone was for a non-English, non-traditional audience. It was about capturing and harvesting new fans in different time zones, far away from football’s heartlands.

Furthermore, the social and digital media output was confused. The implication was the gang of 12 clubs would remain part of their domestic leagues while also contesting the European Super League. Fine, only Premier League rules don’t allow this. Were the clubs even aware they were under Premier League L9 they have to ‘obtain prior written approval of the Board’ before entering another competition? Seemingly not. If you want to play the game, learn the rules.

Then there was the timing: why 11pm on a Sunday night? One theory is that the clubs were trying to pre-empt Monday’s UEFA announcement of the revamped Champions League – a competition they were now effectively withdrawing from. Another potential reason was to capture interest in the Asian and American demographics – who were either waking up on Monday morning to news of this breakaway, or able to absorb it for the final few hours of Sunday. In any case, it wasn’t to suit the European audience – strange as it might seem for a European competition. It’s also entirely feasible the media leaks during the day prompted a hasty social media-loaded scattergun disclosure of the club’s intentions. It wasn’t so much coordinated, as shambolic.

But more so the communications became muddled because 12 clubs were being led by strands of strategic messaging in three separate countries – if you exclude the German and French interest, which never materialised. Not only did those strands need to be aligned, but they also needed to run hand-in-hand with the respective departments of each of the dozen clubs. In other words, a lot of different networks needed to be in sync. Is it any wonder the communications was so chaotic? Also, football cultures in England are different to those of Spain, which are not the same as those in Italy. Yet they were delivering in the same tone.

I’ve worked in communications for the private and public sector. I served as head of media for a Premier League football club, was communications manager for a politician and held the same role for a major privately-owned multi-national company. I’m fully aware that trying to keep senior executives and high profile individuals on message can be a major challenge. At best it can be a frustrating exercise in taming egos and calming people who aren’t used to being told ‘no’. At worst, you might as well be trying to herd 10 cats into a phone box. As much as I sympathise with communications managers and press officers, this is a crisis they had to own. They failed.

Above all else, the communications completely missed the target when it came to football’s main stakeholder: the supporters. We haven’t enjoyed the colours, smells or sounds of a football match since March 2020. Senses are heightened. Where we once stood on a terrace, we have now been forced to perch at the end of the laptop or on a handheld device, in the ‘spectator stand’ commonly known as social media. And that’s where the clubs got it badly wrong. The declarations to join the ESL came out and then…nothing. Silence. Between Sunday night and Monday lunchtime, there was barely any official follow-up. In short, they treated the supporter with disdain.

Money will come first

The following day Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp had to answer questions about his employers, rather than the usual soft-touch pre-match interviews. (That Liverpool were party to this announcement just a few days after the Hillsborough anniversary remains beyond comprehension). Pep Guardiola of Manchester City was also put on the media spot. Players were outraged. High profile employees had been hung out to dry. Supporters at Chelsea took to the streets with their own brand of messaging, splashed across home-made banners. By Tuesday night we went to bed wondering if the previous 48 hours had really happened. The European Super League departed as quickly as it arrived. But return it will. Because football will forever put money first.

Football has many lessons to learn from April 18-20, 2021. Likewise so does Comms; not least how it delivers key messaging and how it should target different stakeholders. 

As for this European Super League, as Ratner might say: actually it was ‘total crap’.

Chris Lepkowski is a sports journalism lecturer at Birmingham City University.

Picture credit: Bert Verhoeff / Anefo used under a creative commons licence.

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