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Climbdown won’t save clubs from this comms catastrophe

By Ian Morris
21 April 2021

By Ian Morris

In the pantheon of u-turns this one was pretty swift. Chelsea and Manchester City were the first dominoes to fall, and barely 48 hours after the Sunday night announcement of a new European Super League, all six participating English clubs had signalled their intention to pull out and the project was placed on hold.

Maybe it was an elaborate stunt aimed at improving the bargaining position of “the dirty dozen”. Whether it was or it wasn’t, what is clear is that the football club owners responsible for this attempted breakaway seriously underestimated the level of opposition to the idea of franchise football.

What they may still not have worked out is the lasting damage inflicted on their relationship with core supporters.

Let’s go back to Sunday. On a tactical level, this was a masterclass in how not to communicate a major announcement.

There had clearly been no consultation of key stakeholders about the proposals, and certainly not fans.

The timing of a plan that would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, on the back of a global pandemic which has had a debilitating impact on smaller football clubs, was poor.

The timing of the statement itself, at 11:30pm on Sunday night, was even poorer and looked like a completely misguided attempt to minimise criticism. By this time, the leaked news had already been circulating for several hours and the silence had of course been filled by contemptuous voices from every corner.

The lack of spokespeople put forward by football clubs to defend the plans looked cowardly, or arrogant. Neither is good.

The tone of the communications was completely aloof and cold. In particular, the lack of individual care that clubs took over how they communicated the news to their own fans beggars belief. Man City and Liverpool fans had to read a quote from the co-chair of bitter rivals Man United on their websites, rather than anything from their own owners or directors.

I feel for the in-house comms teams at these clubs who I strongly suspect were given an almighty hospital pass by club owners.

But in truth, had the protagonists of this short-lived plot delivered a much more tactically-adept launch, it would have made little difference.

Why? Because through the very act of backing this breakaway league, the plotters committed a crime against communications that goes well beyond launch tactics. They fundamentally failed to understand what their product is, what their purpose is, and their most important stakeholder – the fans.

Many will argue that football is a business and that top football clubs are global brands designed to make money. Some will point out that football chose this route when it took the millions from Sky TV in the 1990s. Seen purely through this prism, the ESL plans make financial sense for the clubs involved.

But football is, of course, much more than this. It is the world’s most popular sport, providing competition and entertainment to hundreds of millions of players and billions of supporters.

And its fans were never going to accept being robbed of the pyramid structure of football that allows them all to dream of their team playing against the best, or fear for losing that privilege. The thrill of the rollercoaster. For many fans, football is a way of life and their football club the hub of the community. It is what they look forward to, what they talk about with their friends and family, what they dream of. When match attendance was banned during the pandemic, you only had to watch footage of distraught and depressed veteran fans to understand how deeply a football club can be interwoven with the lives of its supporters.

In putting forward plans for the ESL, club owners demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what football is and what it means to the primary group of people they purport to serve.

Perhaps they had banked on the continuing blind loyalty of fans that have always shelled out money in support of their clubs week in week in out. But many supporters will not forgive this betrayal easily.

Thankfully, this swift climbdown shows that despite the purely financial motivations of some billionaire owners, football’s number one stakeholders – its fans - are still powerful guardians of the game’s purpose beyond profit. Fans did save football. For now.