Undoing the own goal: How the European Super League should have engaged its stakeholders

Four weeks is a long time in the world of football, and it will certainly have felt like it for the 12 of the world’s richest clubs who made the ill-fated decision to support the breakaway ‘European Super League’. 

Designed to pit the biggest clubs against each other in a series of blockbuster matches, this new league was a closed door event - with no promotion or relegation - or the risk of failing to qualify, guaranteeing TV/sponsorship/advertising/match-day revenue for those involved.

Now this is not a new idea - the board of Real Madrid have been pushing for this for a number of years. And it’s always been rebuffed - usually because it unfairly elevates certain clubs above the current pinnacle of European club competition. And that’s the crux of the issue.

The clubs involved will say they bring the glamour - the players - the fans - the history - to the existing format. And because of that, they should see something more in return. Who cares that a qualifying team makes it into the competition? Do people want to watch Malmo, or five time winners Barcelona? UEFA, organisers of the Champions League, need the big teams to turn up as it’s a huge money-spinner for them as an organisation. But they also have a role to play as the arbiters of the game - and removing the element of qualification damages both the ethos and integrity of the game and their standing within the sport.

So where did it all go wrong?

Well, in short, the clubs failed to engage with wider stakeholder groups to bring them along at each stage of the idea. For example, they rightly assumed that the modern generation of global fan - who research shows supports a particular player rather than a club - would love the opportunity to watch big names going head to head more regularly than ever before. But they didn’t account for traditional supporters who want to see open competition, where any club could qualify based on merit and domestic performance. Who want the ultimate feel-good story of underdogs and minnows beating the big boys. Who want competition over cash. The clubs might get richer, but the soul of football gets poorer.

And it goes beyond fans. Football is fickle. Sponsors increasingly come and go, TV rights are more and more in flux due to challengers like Amazon and Facebook while kit manufacturers are all paying more now for their agreements so they can release kits more frequently. In order for any change within football to be successful - all the stakeholders have to carefully navigated and managed. That is just the start - the list is long and complex, but it has to be done.

The world of brand consulting is not so different. Maybe that’s because football clubs are providers of emotionally-charged products and services. Much in the same way you look at airlines or banks or motor vehicles. Successful brands, and successful brand programmes, are built on strong stakeholder engagement. Listening is a key component. Understanding and empathy is essential. You can’t dance around opinion through fear of what you might hear, you need to embrace it.

From experience, you need to shape programmes with care and consideration, conversing with those involved to understand their hopes and concerns, and how best to deliver or alleviate them. It’s about fostering an environment where clients are aligned on a common goal, while ensuring deliverables help meet their specific needs. From marcomms to legal to finance to sales… everyone should have a point of view, and the job is to handle them accordingly.

In the case of the European Super League, misreading of stakeholders manifested itself in a number of ways:

  • The communication of their intent was very much a broadcast monologue - ‘this is what we’re going to do - try and stop us’
  • In the critical first day after the announcement, none of the clubs involved could articulate clearly the benefits that would come of it beyond “more competitive matches” (which for regular viewers of the Champions League will recognise, is no guarantee…)
  • The announcement came as a shock to most of the mainstream media - there seemed to be a lot of internal planning, but not a lot externally… almost everyone saw it as a shock (in the case of Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, managers of Liverpool and Manchester United respectively - almost comically so)

How could they have done better?

  • Make it a conversation, not a monologue: the stakeholders should have been mapped out and involved at the beginning of the programme - the clubs, the fans, the sponsors, the players, the governing bodies, the kit manufacturers, the licensees… and the proposal should have been looked at through their lens. What do they want to see? How would the idea impact them? What would they embrace? What would they reject? Knowing this would allow the “ESL” driving team to identify and connect commonalities, opening up a dialogue with parties and managing their concerns accordingly.

It was the approach taken for the London Olympics in 2012, where we listened to the needs of all stakeholders (sponsors, government, governing bodies and the general public) to deliver a truly participatory experience.

  • Story-sell, not storytell: no matter how great the idea is, you have to paint a picture of the future where change is made as real as possible, and the ‘proof points’ are evident. One of the biggest criticisms of the “ESL” announcement is that there were no substantiated benefits identified by the clubs proposing it. We would always recommend identifying how a new brand idea/direction builds on existing successes, and opens up opportunities for new ones. It can be hard to get excited about words on a page - it’s easier to do so by highlighting actions and tangibles.

Like we did with Uber, where we showed the benefits of the new identity system at a micro level (the improvements it will make to driver partners in Delhi) and a macro level (the positive impact the new brand would have on IPO valuation)

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare: in the context of the “ESL”, the last 5 years have been dogged by rumours of such an idea happening. Yet this announcement came as a shock to almost everyone in the mainstream media. The approach immediately put respondents on the back foot. It forced them to make snap judgements - which in this case were overwhelmingly negative. On a brand programme, we would sow the seed of what we were intending to do throughout. We’d pre-share and sense check with specific stakeholders. We’d test the idea and canvas opinion. We’d set up a SteerCo to advise the Project Team on what Senior Decision Makers would be expecting, and what they would need to see. We’d manage expectations throughout, to ensure the work was framed in the right way to give us the best chance of success.

As we did with AES, where we worked closely with their customers, their local market teams and their senior leadership to walk through the rebranding process step by step, building and iterating as we went.

In summary, stakeholder management is a critical factor in the success of any brand programme. Our approach is to look at stakeholders through an empathetic lens to understand what they need, how we can deliver it, and how it delivers both holistically and individually. We’re not prisoners of process; but rather prefer to navigate programmes through open dialogue, compelling storytelling, and expectation setting.

Whatever your idea - and the drivers that lay behind it - the chances of success are significantly higher when you manage the playing field appropriately.

Guy Marshall is Engagement Director at Wolff Olins