The collapse of a breakaway European league via a flawed announcement threw serious shade on some of Europe’s biggest football clubs, so what did they get so wrong? And what can we learn from this as marketeers?

The main issue was that the new league was solving a problem for the clubs (companies) and not the fans (customers or consumers). The situation was a textbook example of failing to understand market and customer needs.

Looking at this from a marketing perspective, it is clear to see that the people involved had failed to get the solid foundations in place. There appeared to be little to no market awareness or understanding, and this had a huge impact.

The plans were described in the media as treating ‘legacy fans’ with contempt. And this level of contempt created immediate resistance and noise, with fans taking to the streets and social media to voice their dismay.

Solving a problem for your company without consulting your target market, particularly where the problem is focussed on your profits can lead to huge problems. We see this all too often in the pharma and biotech space. Companies position themselves around their internal perceptions and aspirations, with very little regard for the actual external perspective.

What could have been done differently?

The very simply answer is that the companies should have listened to their customers. Or at the very least, conducted some research to see whether such a big investment would be received well.

There are some simple marketing basics that could have delivered a different outcome…

Market orientation

Research is vital and in this instance, it seems it was overlooked or undervalued with huge consequences. Some of the clubs involved in the scheme engaged in some level of market research by engaging with their fan forums. However, this appears to have been superficial and therefore delivered negative consequences.

Lessons in listening

Marketers are hard-wired to listen to their customers. By taking the time to listen you open up the possibility to solve problems and add value. You generate awareness, build empathy, and grow your understanding.

Audience segmentation

The new super league appeared to target new and younger fan on a global level. Okay, fine. A new potential market was identified and plans were shared to alter match timings to offer a better fit for different time zones. But, what about the existing fan base? Which problems were being solved for them? The proposal instantly alienated around 4 Billion football worldwide…

Reputational impact

Following the announcement, news streams were filled with fans and pundits discussing their dismay. Many fans also took to the streets and congregated outside stadiums united in their rejection of the league. COVID-19 prevented larger in-person protests, but angry fans were still able to make their voices heard and caused disruption and delays at matches following the announcement.

Clubs excluded from the proposed league also joined the conversation and the stories profile grew quickly moving from Sports News to headline news across the world.

The situation caused embarrassment for those involved, left threats of sanctions hanging over them and clubs reeled as their billionaire owners and investors scrambled to apologise to their fanbases. Critically, it also left the players in a vulnerable position.

Content and messaging

Content remains king and companies can live and die based on their messaging. The official press release announcing the league was littered with the wrong kinds of key words. Fans didn’t take well to reading about “finances”, “economics”, “revenues” and “commercials”. The narrative was out of touch with the fans and therefore the messaging used to announce the league left audiences with a poor impression and a focus on greed. No matter how great your service, product or technology is, if your messaging is poor your audience won’t ‘buy it’.

Comms in crisis – remember the 7 P’s

Making a bad situation worse, the clubs deployed a communications plan that simply didn’t work. At marketing’s core you’ll find the traditional 7 P’s – Product, Price, Promotion, Place/Plan, People, Process and Physical Evidence. In the case of the super league proposal all 7 P’s were flawed:

  • Product – solving a problem for companies and not customers (or consumers in this case), no-one asked for or wanted the product.
  • Price – customers were already unhappy with current pricing and unable to stomach increases.
  • Promotion – the announcement was limited to a cold press release with the wrong messaging.
  • Place/Plan – the plan was under research and unclear.
  • People – the only people in ‘the know’ were club owners (fans, managers & stakeholders were in the dark).
  • Process – the process was overlooked and was not built around the customer.
  • Physical Evidence – the experience left a bad taste, damaged reputations and cost money.

Internal comms

Internal comms is too often overlooked and undervalued. In this case it could not be more critical! It seems clear that the only people in ‘the know’ about the plans were the owners. Leaving Managers, players and club staff to perhaps find out about the announcement hours/minutes before it was made. Hung out to dry in post-match interviews, with no briefing or messaging, some players and managers refused to comment, whilst others spoke out against the plans.

This instantly created a dominant narrative of confusion, total lack of transparency and caused embarrassment to figureheads who were left to confirm that they were finding out at the same time as the public.

Stakeholder engagement

If managers and players thought they had it rough, official bodies were also left in the dark. This lack of engagement led to a senior post holder at UEFA calling a club executive a “snake” in the media. The Premier League and FIFA then threatened that any player taking part in the league would face instant expulsion from international competitions. Instead of this all playing out in public it could have been avoided with planned, clear dialogue. Engaging with stakeholders, listening to them and getting them on board before making a public announcement could have led to a very different outcome.

So, what’s the summary? In the pharma and biotech space, what can we learn from this comms disaster? Although the target market is completely different, the principles are the same.

  • Do your research before investing in a new service, technology or product.
  • Make it your business to regularly speak with and understand your customers (and their needs).
  • Reputation takes a lifetime to build and seconds to destroy.
  • Does your messaging and content resonate with your target audience?
  • How often do you engage with the right stakeholders for your business?