The Word on the Super League; Can Comms Recover Club’s Reputational Damage and a Potential New Age of Fan Power

From the time I started typing this blog up to finishing the first segment, the ill-fated European Super League (ESL) was two teams lighter after Manchester City and Chelsea withdrew and my decision to wait until Wednesday to pick it back up was vindicated when I awoke to the news that the project was all but dead in the water, with the other four English sides involved; Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham following suite.

There is absolutely no doubt that the notion of a Super League is built upon the greed, with the self-appointed elite European clubs wanting an even bigger slice of the pie than they already have.

Photo from CEB Imagery (Creative Commons License)

Caption: American influence on the ESL could have created a franchise and even more overly commercialised game

Despite their protestations, I don’t think the likes of the Premier League, Sky, UEFA and FIFA are blameless either and have themselves facilitated a less competitive sport in the last thirty years by allowing obscene wealth and power into a small number of clubs, enabling the rich owners to consistently chase more with no consideration of working class supporters, which is reflective of much of society and in truth an ESL-esque closed-shop bosses club has been an inevitability for years.

The fans themselves have yielded more power than they thought they had, the opposite to the ‘elitist’ owners, which hopefully will provide a seed change for football with supporters demanding changes to the game, perhaps an adoption of Germany’s 50+1 model in the coming years.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons (Commercial Commons License)

Caption: No German club were involved in ESL proposals and fans are treated far better with the 50+1 rule in place

Anyway, from a communucations and PR perspective, developments in the last day or so in particular have demonstrated just how the clubs involved in the breakaway are attempting to rebuild the relationship with their fan base, after universal backlash upon the announcements.

Much has been made about the reactions of UEFA and the Premier League and the messaging in their response too.

Lets take a look at how things unraveled and continue to develop in relation to the ESL from a PR outlook.

How the Clubs Broke the News

It has to be expected that PR teams within the ESL clubs shared sentiments with football supporters worldwide,who have reacted with collective fury towards the plan, given that many of them will be lovers of the sport like the rest of us.

Caption: The briefness of Arsenal’s message told its own story

With backlash starting in earnest when the plans were mooted on Sunday afternoon, clubs sheepishly released statements around 11:30pm, presumably to mitigate the abuse they would inevitably endure . No emojis, no pleasantries, nothing. Clearly this was a message they were uncomfortable giving.

The brief nature of the statements and the lack of clarity given even to the playing staff and management, would suggest that the comms teams within the six Premier League clubs had as little knowledge of the how and the why as the rest of us.

Needless to say, the strategic timing of the message did little to quash the fury, with fans in the early hours of the morning putting up banners emblazoned with messages of condemnation , with Liverpool supporters putting up banners mourning the death of their beloved club.

Since the bedtime strategy didn’t work , Tottenham even announced the sacking of Jose Mourinho on Monday, which many pointed out could have been rushed out to try and divert the media or the fallout between him and Daniel Levy could have been linked to the ESL itself .

If it was a diversion tactic, it didn’t work.

UEFA’s Reaction

UEFA aren’t exactly lauded by football fans, especially considering the new Champions League proposals we spoke about a few weeks back (also announced on Monday but we’ll get to that) but President Aleksander Ceferin’s strongly worded statement, calling members of club boards who had been executive members of UEFA committees ‘snakes‘.

Although the language used the day after was somewhat diluted, Ceferin was applauded by football fans for his fearless stance against the 12 members of the ESL, the tone of which had captured the mood of football supporters perfectly.

Photo from Pexels

Caption: When UEFA are making you look bad, you know you’re pretty bad

As English clubs began to retreat, Ceferin offered an olive branch to clubs by using phrases like; ‘everyone makes mistakes’, which was either a reflection of the initial fury wavering slightly or carefully scripted messaging from UEFA’s PR team to take pity on the rebel clubs just after shaming them twenty-four hours earlier. However calculated it was, it worked.

The Premier League

The Recovery

The backlash from the football community as whole was nothing compared to the damage that the owners have done in their relationship with their club’s supporters , profoundly pertinent in Chelsea fans’ protests before their game with Brighton on Tuesday night.

Fan groups were hurt, none more so than Liverpool’s local fan base who’s community stand for everything the ESL looked to destroy and their despair was obvious as they demanded the club removed all their flags from the famous Kop end.

Caption: Fan Groups of affected clubs universally opposed the ESL plans

Whilst club custodians have apologised for the part in the proposals, Liverpool owner John Henry put himself in front of the camera to say sorry to supporters, staff and the players.

However, it is rightly pointed out that Henry has not exactly been a bastion of the club’s values given that he has tried to trademark the Liverpool FC name and furloughed staff to the cost of the tax payer, despite enjoying a multi-million pound turnover.

Caption: John Henry at least addressed fans on camera, but recent actions will not make these statements enough

It has certainly split their fans and for many the ESL is the nail in the coffin for the regime, so how impactful will apologetic statements and owners addressing the supporters in-person actually be in repairing their relationships? I believe fans of every club will be even more suspect of owners from now and no amount of platitudes will mitigate this.

Something More Cynical at Work?

But what if the ESL was a front planned by UEFA and their PR team?

Tin foil hat firmly on, it does seem conspicuous that UEFA announced plans for a drastically reformed Champions League from 2024/25 on Monday, one resembling the feature of Word of Football’s post three weeks ago, almost undetected as the fallout from the ESL announcements were dominating all media forms.

The fact that the plans for the new Champions League format were met very much by football fans with criticism when mooted initially, the anger towards the ESL meant there was very little time or energy spent reacting to UEFA’s announcement.

Could this have been a diabolical communications ploy between UEFA and the clubs involved to push through the new plans that like the ESL, do reward clubs based on their UEFA coefficient or past performance?

Caption: Matt Slater of The Athletic making some thought-provoking observations of the situation

It is true that both sets of parties would have something to gain, but whether the clubs would be willing to do huge damage to their own reputation in exchange for an easier entry into the Champions League and a higher proportion of revenue is a stretch.

I don’t think this is actually the case, but my cynicism has entertained the possibility of this being a UEFA led conspiracy.

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