Seven European perspectives on the Super League and its comms

The spectacular rise and fall of European football’s Super League this week has been one of the biggest non-Covid stories of the year in the UK, thanks in part to pledges from Boris Johnson and other politicians to intervene.

But what about other football-mad European countries – both those whose clubs were among its founders, and those which were not? Was it big news everywhere? Influence spoke to seven members of  The Crisis Communications Network Europe to find out.

Italy (three of whose clubs were among the 12 founding members)

Eva Ploner, managing director, Daviso.

Given the huge importance of soccer in our country, it was no surprise at all that the proposal for the Super League created quite a big stir in Italy. The news was published in all national and local newspapers, broadcast on newscast, TV and radio, and even discussed during political talk shows – Prime Minister Draghi wants to protect institutional sport that starts with sport for children, up to the Olympics. The news was everywhere, not at all limited to sport magazines.

The communication has been a total disaster on all fronts and the adverse reaction was clear. But neither a problem of reputation nor a lack of trust has arisen: no one hid a mistake or said anything untrue. It was just a (badly) presented project that many people did not like. The reputation of soccer itself has already been damaged for decades and this only exacerbated problems that already existed.

The lesson is that before announcing revolutionary changes, communications must be prepared and tuned at the institutional level in a more solid way. A large supporting base must be included, especially when it comes to sensitive and emotional subjects like soccer, team sport, national pride and money. It would also be advisable to have a planned strategy to opt out (a plan B, and a plan C) in case of non-acceptance.

Spain (three of whose clubs were among the 12)

Luis Serrano, partner, Señor Lobo & Friends.

In Spain, the story not only monopolized the time of sports media, but also opened most of the TV news programmes, making rivers of ink flow. Conversation on social networks has harshly criticized the plans of the European football giants. The forceful reaction of the Spanish authorities and those of La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation ended up burying the project in the country, following the departure of Atlético de Madrid. The tsunami ended up forcing Florentino Pérez himself to offer explanations on TV. Unfortunately, he failed to calm the situation, becoming the villain of the story.

It has been really surprising to see such clumsy communication, and a project which seems to have been so quickly improvised, from three clubs (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid) with such high-quality professionals working for them.

United Kingdom (six English clubs were among the 12)

Steve Double, strategic partner, Alder.

What business launches a new product without researching the likely consumer reaction or demand? Careers and reputations would have been saved simply by some warm-up comms. It is an approach beloved by the UK government: float the possible policy change in a Sunday newspaper, gauge the reaction and then retreat or proceed based on that reaction. This failed launch needed just such a tactic.

While there is long-term damage to the reputations of certain individuals, the long-term reputations of the clubs will rise again – the tribal nature of football ensures that. In fact, good may come out of it. Break-away leagues have been mooted many times before. It will take a brave man to try again.

Germany (no clubs represented)

Kathrin Hansen, consultant, Engel & Zimmermann.

The announcement of a European Super League made big waves in Germany, from online magazines to radio discussions to Germany’s highest-reach news program, Tagesschau. The aggressive approach of the Super League initiators leaves a thoroughly negative impression in Germany: the image of profit-oriented soccer, increasingly alienated from the grassroots and fans, is becoming entrenched.

German clubs publicly distanced themselves from the league, signalling their solidarity with FIFA and UEFA. In doing so, they were quite successful and had sympathy on their side. With criticism of Fifa and the World Cup in Qatar due to the human rights situation already boiling up time and again, the Super League is inflicting further serious damage on soccer’s image.

As far as I know there have been no comments on this topic by German politicians – this didn’t surprise me, because our governing party is in kind of a crisis right now.

Republic of Ireland (no clubs represented)

Greg Canty, managing partner, Fuzion.

In Ireland the issue was one of the key news stories with the story overtaking pandemic issues  The reaction came as no surprise as so many people in Ireland have a strong affiliation for soccer – Irish soccer fans may have their own home team they support, but most would have a close affiliation to an English or Scottish team as well. There was uniform condemnation of the concept, and our Taoiseach, Michael Martin tweeted: “I will engage with other EU governments about possible common action against this Super League proposal.”

The announcement of the Super League was doomed as there was no consideration for their internal audience and when managers and players were not in the loop, the concept came across as flimsy, arrogant and ill-considered. But in Ireland we love the repenting sinner – which is why Liverpool FC’s owner, John Henry’s apology directly to the fans “I let you down”, has dampened some of the flames. “I’m sorry” are such powerful words in a crisis.

Netherlands (no clubs represented)

Sandra Woudsma, consultant, Van Hulzen Communicatie.

The enormous strength of feeling from football fans has been the most important ingredient in the Super League story – the major consequences in a short period of time have mostly been caused by the response from fans.

Media and commentators immediately framed this development as being all about money – and that didn’t go down well with anyone. The Super League probably looked at many stakeholders in communication in general but forgot to consider the fans. From a crisis communication perspective, we see clear gaps in the preparation with regards the possible reactions.

Austria (no clubs represented)

Valerie Hauff-Prieth, managing director, ROSAM.GRÜNBERGER | Change Communications.

The announcement of the European Super League received some coverage in Austrian news – mainly in the sports sections of several tier-1 media outlets. Armin Wolf, anchor of the main news show on national TV, commented: “It’s an attack that could change European football from the ground up.”

No one from Austrian politics has yet commented – the focus is still entirely on overcoming the social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic – but representatives of Austrian professional football have spoken out clearly against the establishment of the Super League.

Of the national football clubs, it was above all the serial champion Red Bull Salzburg who joined the criticism. After years of criticism of the strong involvement of the Austrian energy drink company Red Bull in football and the commercialisation of the sport, the Super League is seen here as another sign of the negative development of global football.

The Crisis Communications Network Europe is an association of European owner-managed PR agencies.

Rob Smith is the editor of Influence. He's a reporter with a background in business journalism.

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