European Super League fiasco underlines football clubs need to lobby both fans and Government

In many ways, this week’s European Super League (ESL) fiasco illustrates perfectly the growing disconnect in society at large between a perceived out-of-touch billionaire elite and the rest of us. The victory for fan democracy was also a PR disaster for the owners of the 12 clubs involved. What does the rapid demise of the proposed ESL teach us about PR and how does it underline the need for ‘New Collectivism’? With a major Government review of football management imminent, the timing could not be more crucial for clubs.

At the time of writing – the day after the supposed ‘Big Six’ English clubs pulled out of the proposed ESL, effectively killing off the idea – you can already jump onto a search engine and find plenty of articles about what a PR disaster it has been for the owners.

I want to look at the bigger picture and what the ESL fiasco says about how businesses relate to their publics going forward and also what the implications are for the comms functions at other football clubs so they can defend their interests, because I don’t believe the ‘Super League’ threat has gone away.

Football and the New Collectivism

The 12 clubs that announced the European Super League did so because they wanted more money than they currently received from their participation in the UEFA tournaments, the Champions League and Europa League. In the closed shop of the ESL, there would be no relegation. This also means there would be no jeopardy – one of the key ingredients of why people watch the unscripted drama of sport – for many of the matches, especially at the tail-end of the season. The target market was the new markets in the US and Asia, not the club’s traditional local fanbases.

The economist Milton Friedman said famously that businesses’ priority should be to increase profits. But there are two things to consider here in the context of the proposed ESL:

  • Football clubs are not ‘businesses’ in the traditional sense; they have both an unbreakable local attachment as a ‘flag’ for their town or region, as well as an emotional attachment for fans that often supersedes any other ‘brand affinity’ those people may have
  • The ‘profits-first’ approach runs counter to a current trend in business, where many organisations are redefining their purpose beyond purely making profits. Grayling’s own research from early 2021 finds that nearly two thirds (63%) of senior European business decision-makers believe that – alongside making profits – businesses have a collective responsibility to the societies they operate in

At a time when businesses are finding their higher purpose – such as creating inclusive, sustainable working environments for their staff, otherwise known as ‘New Collectivism’ – so football clubs, in particular, should be embracing their existing fanbase rather than view them as “legacy fans”.

Football clubs with a clear purpose do exist, albeit in the lower reaches of the game’s pyramid. Gloucestershire club Forest Green Rovers is a great example, where all the food served to players and fans alike is vegan, the kit is made from coffee bean waste, and it has plans for a new low carbon-impact stadium.

Football clubs need a new approach to comms and lobbying

Most football clubs in England outside the self-styled ‘Big Six’ responded quickly to voice their opposition to the ESL. Perhaps the most innovative was League Two side Grimsby Town, who offered a ‘shirt amnesty’ for any ‘Big Six’ fan who fancied ditching their old shirt for a new Grimsby Town one.

While all major clubs have a PR and communications arm, one clear lesson from the ESL episode is that they also need public affairs skills to lobby government to protect their interests. A review of how football is run by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) is imminent and, despite the withdrawal of the English clubs from the ESL, Sports Secretary Oliver Dowden is committed to reform, which could even look at the German-style majority fan-ownership model.

In a world emerging from COVID-related lockdowns, governments are increasingly likely to intervene in issues like the ESL, especially if they feel they will play well with voters. As Grayling’s New Collectivism report highlights, we are living in a post-globalisation world where the state is finding ever-greater confidence to involve itself in society. This means businesses – including football clubs – will have to think more clearly about what that new reality means for them and how to plan for it.

Clubs will be keen to be part of the conversations that the UK Government has around the future of football management, which is where expert consultancies like Grayling can come in to help them articulate their messaging and ensure as many voices are heard as possible.

Chris Lee is a Content and Digital Consultant at Grayling. He runs the football culture blog and podcast Outside Write and his book Origin Stories: The Pioneers Who Took Football to the World was released in April 2021.