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European Super League marketing autopsy: where football's breakaway went wrong


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

April 21, 2021 | 12 min read

Loathed by fans, lambasted by pundits, players and politicians, football’s newly announced European Super League (ESL) has been met with fury. After a launch ridiculed as a PR own goal, The Drum investigates the marketing challenges facing football's newest – and most controversial – competition. Did it ever stand a chance?

Super league

Inside the Super League civil war

Mark Borkowski, a publicist who has seen it all when it comes to launches, describes the unveiling of the European Super League as no less than a "historic comms disaster". "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."

Sunday's stunning announcement from 12 of Europe's biggest football clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan, Juventus, AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid – that they intend to form their own closed-shop 'Super League' has sparked condemnation from the sporting world and beyond. From football king Eric Cantona to future king Prince William, figures from football, media and politics have joined fans in a deafening chorus of criticism over the plans. It only took a few days of pressure for England's 'big six' to capitulate and depart the league.

On the side of the Super League was a PR agency once described by Boris Johnson as the “Fortnum and Mason of communications” (after it campaigned to get him elected as London mayor). InHouse Communications may soon have to take Johnson's endorsement off its website, however, since the PM has joined the growing number of opponents deriding the Super League as “very damaging for football”.

Outside a template corporate statement shared, somewhat sheepishly, on each club's official website late on Sunday evening, little else was known about the Super League so far. Broadcast deals and promotional plans remained a mystery. To the frustration of fans, the football club owners who orchestrated this unprecedented upheaval of the sport's power structures have largely stayed silent amid repeated calls for their explanations.

The vacuum was filled by high-profile opponents, each with their own skin in the game, who have seized the media to voice their disapproval. The president of Uefa, which has most to lose as the organizer of a Champions League competition which would be shorn of its star attractions, has described the leavers as “snakes” and a “dirty dozen”. Talk of sanctions and legal battles abound. The narrative of a greedy few turning their backs on the football family and the game's historic traditions and spirit of competition was formed. The dispute was characterised by the media as a 'war on football'.

The Drum investigates the doomed venture's marketing failures and digs into what it could have done instead.

Shots fired

“If this goes ahead then football as we know it will be unrecognisable. Decades of tradition and history will be destroyed,” says Simon Dent, founder of sports creative agency Dark Horses.

A lack of fan input made a “mockery” of the sport. He believes the clubs thought they could live solely off the goodwill of fans from overseas. “For too long fans have been treated badly and I think this will be the final straw for a large number.”

Adam Raincock, co-founder of sports agency The Space Between, says global fans are not “imbued with tradition, history and provenance” of their local peers. But even the hardest-nosed fans can be swayed by quality football fixtures. What fans say, and what fans do, isn’t always one and the same.

The ESL teams are looking to “drive more power and wealth for Europe’s elite, set against a backdrop of financial uncertainty for many”. Raincock still needs to be convinced this isn’t “political posturing to drive a better [Champions League] deal and more influence”.

He sees more evidence of political play, citing InHouse Communications' involvement, rather than any actual long-term marketing strategy. If the ESL gets past the “posturing stage then expect the battle to be public and fierce”. Some compare it to the formation of the Premier League back in 1992 but even in that breakaway, football's meritocratic tenets of relegation and promotion were retained. “Guaranteed inclusion goes against the basic pretence of the sport.”

The ESL needed to manage the narrative and create a product capable of driving millions of eyeballs. After a season of empty stadiums with pumped-in fan noise, the game’s global appeal, unfortunately, looks to be more important to owners than a couple of million passionate fans in England.

The game plan

The ESL needed to turn on the “charm offensive” says Daryl West, head of sponsorship and social media at Vanarama, an auto rental brand that sponsors the National League in England. These are clubs that actually face an existential threat.

It should have talked up (and perhaps created) benefits for the rest of the football pyramid, discussed how it’ll be a better fit for a global fan base, and even start using its media space to champion some good causes.

The ESL leadership needed to be more visible in media interviews too. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez was the only club leader to have gone public. "Young people are no longer interested in football. Why not? Because there are a lot of poor quality games and they are not interested, they have other platforms on which to distract themselves," he said in his justification for the move.

And if the ESL had any big influencers in the game, it needed to use them, says West. “You may not change minds but you could at least give an alternative view to think about.”

Roger Mitchell was a founding chief executive of the Scottish Premier League and helped treble the value of the TV rights upon its formation in 1998. Well acquainted with the mechanics of football’s bureaucracy, he has long predicted the ESL’s coming.

He says: "This is very simply about the control of the Champions League product. It’s a powerplay. The clubs are fed up with Uefa control."

He believes the media response was overblown and that the new model wasn’t massively different from the newly reformatted Champions League. The rebels were painted as “greedy” but Mitchell believes that argument can be soon turned on those making it.

“Uefa governance is very expensive. The expenses and the salaries are astronomical. A lot of people have got quite rich in this organisation with no accountability."

Strategically, he thinks Uefa will tug on heartstrings with talk of the "football family" and the grassroots. The rebels will point to failings within the governing bodies. There will be a lot of noise and threats but sponsors and broadcasters would “have a canary” if the rebels and their players were ousted from select competitions like the Premier League and World Cup, as has been suggested. There's little chance of repercussions, Mitchell believes. "Whoever’s got the best PRs will win.”

On the pitch

Media and comms consultant Christopher Haynes was with Sky for 24 years. He saw the birth of pay-TV in the UK from 1990, and he's was more opened-minded about the launch. For one, it disrupted the status quo and over-shadowed all this week's games, as well as the cyclical sacking of Jose Mourinho.

“It’s easy to take a stance that the comms are cack-handed but we’re looking at tactics and judging without knowing the strategy or being certain of the ESL’s aims.” Does it want concessions, reform, or to launch a new league, he asked? If the goal was to create a stink and garner better terms, can we say it failed?

Dan Roan, sports editor of BBC News, says the ESL is pursuing the 'fans of the future' who want superstar names rather than 'legacy fans'. Whether the ESL has any life left or not, Haynes notices it reflects a shift in the fan paradigm. He asks: "What if that traditional core is ultimately not the biggest long-term audience (despite that need for the excitement they transmit from the pitch to the viewer)? It’s hard to turn their initial resistance so could the judgment be: will they really stop this?”

If the rebels stay the course, it will be regulation, not reputation, that will be the deciding factor. The competition authority once ruled Sky’s attempt to buy Manchester United offside. There could be similar friction ahead.

Haynes says: “UK broadcasters and rights holders fear the impact on existing rights – most obvious the Premier League.” Football is global, and to be a part of that, the ESL must explain its purpose, and its process, and make the product real by announcing new clubs, brand development and core partners.

Even if it does, Tim Westcott, a media analyst at Omdia, wonders which broadcasters could afford and deliver these global rights. Broadcasting accounted for around 85% of Uefa’s revenues in 2018/19. The broadcasters are the kingmakers.

Westcott says: “Silvio Berlusconi was usually linked with rumours of breakaway leagues back when he owned AC Milan, while Rupert Murdoch's Sky was instrumental in the foundation of the Premier League.”

The times have changed. The German and Italian markets show pay-TV firms are “no longer as keen to splash out on rights as they used to be”. So who’s standing in the wings for the ESL? Disney, Discovery or NBC (now a sister of Sky in Europe via Comcast)? OTT firm Dazn has been linked but Amazon, streaming partner to the Champions League and Premier League has raised its "concerns".

What the fans think

But just how many fans are coming aboard? In January 2021, 90 Min ranked the 10 football clubs with the biggest social media followings. Eight of those 10 have said they will join the Super League, bringing a combined 1.08 billion followers (expect some duplicates of course). Tottenham (not in the top 10) bring another 37.6 million, Atletico Madrid 31.6 million, and the Milan sides around 40 million each. And then there's the influence of players, who sometimes wield the loyalty of global fans, more than the clubs they are affiliated with. Real Madrid famously lost 1 million followers in the 24 hours after Cristiano Ronaldo made his move to Juventus.

It was a bitter taste of fickle modern fandom.

Social Bakers analysed Twitter chat about the ESL. It registered twice as many negative mentions (21%) as positive ones (11%). We’ve already seen scores of bots pushing a narrative that "the super league is a good idea and will revolutionize football" so be wary when taking social stats at face value.

Meanwhile, YouGov polled 1,730 British football fans on Monday 19 April. 79% said they oppose the Super League (68% strongly). Only 14% said they support it. 75% said they are not interested in watching the matches. A minuscule 3% said they think the launch was motivated by creating something better for fans. Another three quarters believe smaller clubs will suffer financially and half believe the rebels should be punished.

The ESL thinks that “fans will get with the programme,” says former SPL boss Mitchell. “They get angry with owners one season, then come back the next forgetful and full of hope.”

Of course, the fan was only a small component of the wider PR war that will encapsulate the influence of super states, power brokers, tech giants, billionaires and politicians. For the players involved, the fan backlash is likely even less heated than what’s occurring right now in boardrooms throughout Europe.

John McCarthy writes The Drum’s Future of Media briefing. Sign up here.

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