Beyond Crisis Management: The Rise and Fall of The European Super League
A crisis is the ultimate unplanned activity and the ultimate test for managers. Thinking of recent times, almost everybody will recall Volkswagen’s “Diesel Gate” and the United Airlines overbooking incident. But even the more severe crises of the past – such as the BP oil spill - now have a new contender: the European Super League project disaster.
At the heart of this problem was the complete lack of consultation with fans, players, managers, and other relevant stakeholders – including governments. The whole operation was planned so poorly that many people thought this was a bluff aimed at shaking the status quo by ‘threatening’ UEFA ahead of planned decisions about the Champions League.
But what has more likely happened is that the minds behind the Super League and the participating clubs thought they were too big to fail and too powerful to need a good Public Affairs and PR plan. To be fair, a PR company was hired, but reportedly too late. To make matters worse, the company has worked with high-level politicians but apparently had no previous experience in sport.
The super managers that concocted the Super League idea should have known that a considerable amount of criticism would swiftly follow the announcement of a proposed competition of this sort. Generally, the greater the media exposure on a given issue is anticipated to be, the larger a crisis is likely to be. And with such a global sport like football, there could be no doubt as to how involved the media were going to be.
Against that background, at the very least, a positive message should have been delivered early to counter the negativity. Instead, after the first reports were published at lunchtime on April 18th, there was nothing official coming from the Super League until late at night – a press release that was too heavy on the financial benefits of the project and too light on fundamental details. That was then followed by a vacuum that was quickly and entirely filled with negative reactions. By Monday evening, the narrative was set, and it already felt impossible to change it.
The (few) supporters of the project observe that the Super League idea is addressing a real issue - UEFA running the Champions League in a way that does not deliver enough high-quality games, disregards the potentially huge audiences in China, the US, and elsewhere, and distributes already insufficient revenues in a sub-optimal way. If the Super League had come up with a plan to address all this, had secured supporters to the project beforehand (among managers, players, clubs’ staffs, fans, politicians, and the media), and had properly communicated it, they would have at least in part substantiated Real Madrid president Florentino Perez's hyperbolic statement that the new competition would "save football". Moreover, since a crisis for someone is always an opportunity for someone else, both UEFA and FIFA have emerged stronger by attacking a concept that very quickly failed.
Crisis Management teaches us that, as demanding as the public may be, they are usually inclined to give an organization the benefit of the doubt during the early hours of a crisis and judge an organization and its leaders not so much by the incident itself, but by their response. The European Super League is both an example of a poor (in fact, almost non-existent) PR response, but it is, above all, an impressive case-study to show how important is to anticipate reactions and prepare the ground beforehand. There is no excuse for this high-level group of managers for failing to manage their stakeholders so badly.
This story is everything but over. And it has triggered a much-needed debate about the future of this sport. However, the effects of COVID-19, digitalization, and increased competition may mean this sport might never regain the profitability it had before. Something quite the opposite of what the Super League had envisaged.