Furore among football fans this week as news leaked that 12 of the world’s biggest clubs were breaking away from the sport’s governing bodies to form a ‘European Super League’ (ESL).
The revelation wasn’t so much announced as dropped like a ballistic missile and has, both operationally and in terms of potential fallout, been a disaster for those involved. In reputation terms the ESL is 3-0 down, in danger of having its entire first team squad suspended and on the brink of a violent pitch invasion…all before kick-off. If that image doesn’t hit home, make no mistake, this is one of the worst-planned large scale communications launches in history.
This is what happens when you allow your (vehement) critics sole control of your narrative before you even have one, but the ESL’s problems go deeper. By piecing together the myriad leaks, a picture is emerging of ESL as a hastily, brashly constructed concept smashed together and bulldozed through by North American venture capitalists and management consultants who don’t understand the industry they’re trying to dominate overnight, look down on their key stakeholders (‘legacy fans’), and clearly think of communications strategy as optional.
The business plan is clear: Form a protection racket around the rights to watch the world’s biggest clubs compete, and sell them for exorbitant prices to emerging markets around the world (particularly to the East). These markets’ domestic footballing structures are not on the same scale, but nor do their fanbases have the same emotional connection to Europe’s football heritage, and many more of them came to the game via fantasy worlds like EA Sports FIFA video games or YouTube rather than on terraces or even television, and therefore idol-worship the teams involved.
As a result, however guided by cynicism or self-interest, football’s governing bodies (notably UEFA, FIFA and the domestic leagues of the teams involved), media, current and former players, and fans have all been armed to the teeth with ways to excoriate the ESL. And by getting these criticisms in the news before the ESL even remotely had its ducks in a row, they have become the story and the new league finds itself in a desperate survival fight on several fronts.
A hastily constructed (and insecure) website, no high profile figurehead and no real social media presence left the founding member clubs to fight their own corners – hardly an effective defence against accusations of acting in self-interest. Even the belated appointment of a pretty formidable comms team leaves them facing a positively Thermopylaean task.
First there are the governing bodies to contend with. Neither UEFA nor FIFA are seen as beacons of incorruptible justice (the latter especially given the myriad problems overshadowing the upcoming World Cup in Qatar) but given that the European competitions ESL will decimate are considered the best in the world nonetheless, and in the process of reforming anyway, a public perception result of ‘better the devil you know’ has not been a hard one for them to pull off.
To do so they have painted the ESL, with its lack of qualifying, promotion or relegation, as an exclusive oligopoly devoid of fairness and transparency when compared to their meritocratic system. They’ve also framed its formation as a criminal breakaway punishable by mass player and team suspensions; such an egregious act of lawlessness that they will burn the rest football to the ground to cleanse it of the ESL’s sins.
Then there are former players, other clubs and the media. Not historic cheerleaders for UEFA or FIFA, the footballing commentariat – Garys Lineker & Neville prominent as ever – not only seems to support the institutions’ brinksmanship but are adding ‘Greed’ to the narrative.
The influence of the almighty dollar on football – particularly the avarice of the venture capitalists and wealth funds bankrolling its biggest teams – has been subject to increasing scrutiny as the figures driving the sport grow more ‘Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold’, so it’s been easy for ESL’s detractors to paint it as the final rapacious straw.
Then there are the fans. Whether it’s how poorly membership of the ESL reflects on their team or the divisive impact the new competition could have on the sport they love, supporters have greeted the ESL with overwhelming derision, threatening boycotts and cancelled seasons tickets.
Ultimately that’s the biggest threat. Football thrives on the willingness of fanatics to spend hefty sums on it and if the ESL – assuming it survives its Mexican standoff with UEFA – becomes so toxic that even football fans won’t spend money on it, then it’s a non-starter. Even so, will the game ever be the same again? I don’t think so.