The Marketing Super-Fail of Soccer’s Super-Rich

On Wednesday night the soccer world will be focused on Porto’s magnificent Estádio do Dragão, Portugal, where Manchester City and Chelsea will fight for the right to lift the Champions League Trophy – the most prestigious honour in club football. The trophy itself – 73.5cm tall and poorly proportioned – is not much to write home about. But the winner marches off with the bragging rights to one vital claim: being the best team in Europe.

And then there’s the money. Manchester City, once an underperforming team that represented the working class of a lively northern English city, is now bankrolled by a Sheikh from Abu Dhabi. Chelsea, once an underperforming team that represented the working class of West London, is now bankrolled by a Russian oligarch. And winning equals prizes – especially more global marketing opportunities (rub hands) and enhanced TV revenues (buy another superyacht). Money, as ever, talks.

But, in the last few weeks, money has started to talk with a menacing new level of corporate greed. The values of once-great clubs, institutions that have brought meaning to ordinary people in their local communities, have become ROI playthings for owners who, as Oscar Wilde might say, understand the “price of everything and the value of nothing”. Happily, however, their latest scheme to guarantee themselves even greater riches – the creation of a so-called European Super League – has failed. For the moment, at least.

What do the customers want?

It failed because the super-rich owners made a super-simple blunder. They decided to change the product they were selling but were far too arrogant to research the views of their customers – the football fans who love the game and spend their hard-earned cash on over-priced tickets every week. The football fans who enhance the product with their passion and song in otherwise empty stadia. They didn’t even understand the currency of football: dreams. 

A quick summary. Soccer/football is based on a pyramid system. In all the leagues across Europe, any club can rise to the very top by winning promotion through each level and become the champions. The champions in each country – along with some other well-performing teams – earn the right to play in the Champions League. It’s an open competition, and that’s what gives fans a  license to dream. One day, any club can win it.

Europe’s most powerful and super-rich clubs decided they wanted to change the format. To great fanfare – their own tooting of their own out-of-tune horns – they revealed they would all become permanent members of a new European Super League with the odd extra club condescendingly invited to high table. No promotion. No relegation. Just an exclusive party with a few extras thrown in to silence the critics. Repetitive. Risk-free. Boring.

Get the message right!

As the entire strategy was about corporate performance rather than football performance, the messaging was completely wrong. The official press release announcing the new league included the words “finances”, “economics”, “revenues” and “commercials” seven times;  “better football” just twice. There was nothing in the PR gloop from the football businesses that showed even the slightest understanding of what true football fans wanted. No appreciation for their long-standing loyalty. In fact, they were referred to rather contemptuously as “legacy fans” with the implication that millions of “new” TV fans would replace them. It was a celebration of corporate “we” rather than customer “you”.

The vast majority of fans hated the idea, including those of the Dirty Dozen – the UK’s Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs; Italy’s Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan; and Spain’s Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. They protested. Fired fares. Invaded pitches and delayed games. Demanded the billionaire owners sell up. Some, like John W Henry, owner of Liverpool – and, as it happens, the Boston Red Sox – apologised.

It’s almost laughable. At college, first-year marketing students will be learning about the Four P’s – product, price, promotion and place – and using the European Super League as a case study of how not to create a strategy. It’s the story of a product no one wanted being flogged to customers already frustrated by the product’s high prices; of a promotional campaign obsessed with profits rather than product performance and customer satisfaction; and of a place to consume the product that is ill-defined – by repetitively criss-crossing Europe or watching on pay-a-lot-per-view.

In sharp contrast, another organisation from the world of football – England’s normally very traditional and uncreative Football Association – showed what can be done with some careful thought and a focused eye on the brand. At the launch of its digital hub, which is designed to reconnect the grassroots and the elite game, it revealed a clever change to the classic England Three Lions logo. The three male lions had been replaced by a lion family – a lion, a lioness and a cub.

Inclusivity all the way! One simple logo with a wonderfully clear message that football is for everyone, from the men, women and children booting the ball about at the local park to the millionaire stars and billionaire owners celebrating their big night at the Estádio do Dragão in Portugal. Success on the soccer pitch is all about research, planning, creating the right strategy and then performing well to achieve the ultimate goal. And the same goes for marketing. 

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