The European footballing world was sent into a 48-hour frenzy on Sunday afternoon (18 April), as rumours began to circulate that a big announcement was impending. As football fans gazed quizzically at their phones long into the evening, thumbs frozen in crooked positions to refresh Twitter feeds every 30 seconds, finally, at 11.30pm BST, the news they’d been waiting for came through.
The announcement, and the catastrophic fallout from it, was a Grade A, humdinger of a PR disasterclass, so much so that, barely 48 hours later, the entire concept collapsed and came crashing to the ground, writes lifelong Chelsea fan Jordan Wood.
Here we examine why the news went down like a lead balloon, causing the football community to come together and unite in opposition to the plan.
The alienation of key stakeholders
As PR & comms professionals, there are, of course, certain stakeholders whose happiness is of paramount importance to us. At the end of the day, it’s our clients who pay our fees, our relationships with key journalists that help us secure coverage, the café around the corner that keeps our team fed and watered. We value these relationships and that’s why we’re successful.
For football clubs, the key stakeholders are their fans. They’ve been with them through thick and thin, whether the team is winning trophies or facing the perils of relegation.
A snap survey from YouGov suggests that almost 70% of football fans were strongly against the formation of the ESL. The survey also suggests that two-thirds of fans who support one of the founder member clubs strongly opposed the competition.
The emergence of the ESL, more than anything, was a kick in the teeth to fans everywhere, given the clear message from the billionaire owners of the clubs involved that they cared far more about feathering their own nest than what their loyal fans actually wanted.
Reputations tarnished overnight
Gary Neville, former Manchester United defender and now Sky Sports pundit, put it aptly when he said that, regardless of prior achievements, the clubs involved should be sanctioned through docked points and stripped of their titles. His outcry has been echoed by fans and pundits everywhere.
As experts in reputation management, working with our clients to position them in the best possible light is one of our primary goals. Straight away, the behaviour exhibited here by these owners had me raging incredulously on social media and gasping for a stiff drink.
That morning, I woke up a proud Chelsea fan, having watched my team reach the FA Cup Final; 24 hours later, I was left seriously considering whether I could continue to follow the club that I’ve supported my entire life. Just like that, a reputation dashed in a matter of hours.
Tone deaf timing
Something that we’re always mindful of when making announcements or releasing big news for clients is ensuring that our timings are spot on. This has been especially true over the last year, during the pandemic, where careful and sensitive consideration has been paid when it comes to the optimum time to issue news.
Evidently, this wasn’t a priority for the football clubs involved in the ESL furore. To announce this elitist league during a global pandemic, which has seen so many suffer, was completely tone deaf. It’s been overwhelmingly dubbed a disgrace by commentators, so much so that the Prime Minister intervened to say that the UK government would threaten the clubs involved with serious legislative action.
After the plans collapsed on Tuesday evening, Liverpool’s principal owner John W Henry, issued an apology to fans on Twitter, stating that the project was never going to stand without the support of the fans. If this was the case, then why weren’t fans consulted during the process? Sorry doesn’t feel enough in this instance. It was a feeble apology and something that has been widely regarded as an insult to staff, players and fans.
Thankfully, the clubs have seen sense and backed down. Football fans can, for the time being, feel relieved and proud of their efforts in opposing this. Twitter feeds are less angry; national news presenters have stopped apologising for talking about football so much; pundits are back focusing on matches, rather than politics. The consensus is that this is a pivotal moment that can help clubs drive renewed engagement with fans and local communities. Let’s hope that their considerations and views are put first in decision making in the future.