The rise and fall of the European Super League and the value of strategic planning

The rise and fall of the European Super League and the value of strategic planning

27 April 2021

While the drama created by the European Super League may be slowing down, James Honda-Pinder, head of strategy, Iris Singapore, believes it serves a lesson in understanding the value of strategic planning.

If you’re a football fan like me, this week you’ll have been glued to the coverage surrounding the still-birth of the European Super League.

You may have been inspired by how the United Kingdom, fractured by Brexit and wearied by multiple lockdowns, is somehow united in summoning a blitz spirit to ward off a new set of foreign invaders, attempting to tamper with its collective football religion. Or by Gary Neville’s Churchillian speech on the matter that has seen his odds to be the next Prime Minister fall to 100-1 … crazier things have happened in just the last 12 months.

But as a planner, I couldn’t help but be astonished by the astounding levels of myopia around how the ‘Super 12’ marketed the whole shambles. Many lessons will be learnt from the furore but, for marketers, I feel it irrevocably demonstrates the importance of strong strategic planning.

It’s not like FIFA & UEFA, the current governing bodies of football, who the ‘Super 12’ are locked in their Battle of Greed with, are top of any football fan’s Christmas Card list.

One is an epicentre for proven corruption. The other repeatedly misses the boat on racism and gender. They are tolerated by fans as legacy institutions, propped up by the beautiful game they leech off. Which makes it all the more agonising, that the tone-deaf 12 managed to get this so egregiously wrong.

But it also shows their first fundamental planning failure.

They don’t understand their audience.

Their actions demonstrate the most blatant disregard of its customer any brand could have - the assumption of their loyalty. Seduced by the allure of growing global fandom, the clubs forgot about their core customers. The fans that walk the streets on game day, who rehash highlight reels in the pub. The fans whose tribal chants and raw emotions epitomise the rivalry and folklore that attracts a global audience in the first place. These clubs would have done well to look at the example of Airbnb, which has realized since its earliest days that its key customers are their hosts. They made its fans, a core part of their product. The failure of the SuperClubs to recognise this betrays another fundamental planning failure.

They don’t truly know their product benefit.

Blinded by their avarice, they jumped ship to a shiny new pontoon without porting over any of the elements that make football fans hearts sing. The jeopardy of sport, the tribalism of regional skirmish and the dreams players have of growing up to be a local hero. Localisation may be a cliched word, but every great global brand knows the critical importance of embracing local culture as its creative multiplier. McDonald's didn’t become the world’s most famous QSR by transplanting its American menu into every new market. It respects and caters to local tastes, and it understands the nuances of local food culture. The same cannot be said of the ‘Super 12’ - the core offering they announced sounded like a pale and stale imitation of an American franchise sports league, devoid of the emotional snakes and ladders narrative that European football fans buy into the minute they don their first club shirt.

Their inability to integrate their comms around the ‘launch.’

What should have been a grand-standing launch of an exciting new product turned into a gas leak of social media negativity. As whisper and conjecture swirled on Twitter as news of the league seeped out, the lack of a concrete and grounded PR strategy became all too apparent. A few lacklustre statements and the very visible absence of any owners doing press interviews further fueled the mystery, outrage and sense of infiltration. Had the clubs managed to get their ducks in a row, and packaged their proposal in a more coherent way, some fans might have been more inclined to hear them out. It would have certainly avoided the heady embarrassment of several top players and managers publicly condemning their bosses actions on live TV before and after the games.

The sporting and cultural ramifications of this debacle are still to be fully determined. It’s likely these clubs will be booed everywhere they play for the foreseeable. Owners may not even be able to attend their own team’s matches. But for the marketing community, I see a few comforting lessons.

  • Planning is still important.
  • Power can still reside in the hands of the people.
  • Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come running.

And if you’re planning to launch a dissident football league that trades decades of culture and community for some short-term padding of your Covid drained coffers, get your strategy team together. Chances are they would have a good idea how not to do it.

James Honda-Pinder is head of strategy, Iris Singapore.
Published in The Drum Asia Pacific.

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