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The Implosion of the Super League Offers a Master Class in How to Treat Your Stakeholders

Words by Leon Kaye
Super League

In the long term, it may not rank in epic infamy like New Coke, the 1983 NBC series "Manimal" or the Fyre Festival, mostly because the drama that swirled around the 72-hour life of the Super League crashed almost as quickly as it soared. Nevertheless, the ploy by several of Europe’s wealthiest soccer teams to replace or at least rival the continent’s Champion League was more than a massive public relations blunder — it also affected a major global bank that was poised to profit from the scheme.

A fiasco for the billionaires’ club

In a nutshell, a dozen teams — mostly from England, plus a few leading Italian and Spanish soccer clubs — decided they wanted to go their own route and determine their very own champion across continental Europe. Among their arguments was that the wealthier Premier League clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur — were held back from churning out even more profits by competing against clubs generating far less revenue.

Further, the risk of relegation, the process by which a poorly performing team in a European soccer league is demoted to a lower division, surely weighed on some of the club owners’ minds. That’s especially true of the American owners such as the Glazer family, John Henry and Stan Kroenke, who come from a culture where there is no relegation and maximizing sports teams’ revenues — mostly via television — is a must at all and any costs.

Well, as we’ve seen on just about every sports news site and major newswire, the idea that the same 12 or 15 teams, plus a few additional token clubs, could have a guaranteed shot at a “championship” scored about as much love as a Luis Suárez handball. Start with the fact that the Premier League’s current ninth-place Arsenal was guaranteed such an opportunity, but third-place Leicester City (the 2015-2016 champion) would never get an invitation. The concept far from resonated with fans.

One could counter that sports is not just about fair competition and the fans, and that is true to a point. After all, on this side of the pond, if sports were about the fans, then the first iteration of the Browns would never have left Cleveland, the Giants and Dodgers would continue to play in New York, and Seattle, not Oklahoma City, would still have an NBA team.

Yes, your stakeholders matter

But here’s where things went awry, going beyond what ESPN and other news outlets are calling the “Selfish Six,” summed up by furious protesting Chelsea fans blocking the team’s bus as it was on its way to a match earlier this week. You would have thought these team’s owners, who are so rich they have the resources to hire the smartest to work for them, would have accounted for this risk: If they became fodder for the British tabloid press, then their plan would surely suffer a quick death before it could even be hatched.

And the press had plenty to run with, with several managers of English clubs saying they had not been told of any plans for the Super League before last weekend’s announcement. At best, their opinions about the Super League were non-committal, or they were simply tight-lipped about their thoughts.

Based on the reactions of many players (and their agents), it is clear many of them were left in the dark as well. It was also unclear how participation in the Super League would have an impact on players’ participation in the quadrennial World Cup and popular European Championships — and the threat of a ban on such participation added more fuel to this transatlantic dumpster fire.

The memo to companies: Don’t go Super League

Imagine employees at any company learned their organization’s marquee product or service was either about to completely change or even be eliminated, but instead of hearing about it from management, they got wind of the news from the media, blogs or social media platforms — or even worse, the company’s hired accounting or management consulting firms. And on top of that, it is clear the Super League plan was hatched with little or no involvement from the game’s stakeholders and without any thought as to how employees, or the public, would receive such an announcement.

There’s a good chance these club owners can withstand the blowback, though their actions created so much furor that even France’s Emanuel Macron and the U.K.’s Boris Johnson found themselves in agreement.

But the same may not be said of the bank that was instrumental in the launch of the Super League. Unfortunately, that financial giant only scored what several in the press described as an “own goal.”

From mega-deal to downgrade

JPMorgan Chase was poised to profit handsomely from its role in financing the Super League, with the expectation that it would reap dividends from future lucrative television deals.

“The size of the proposed financing meant the bank stood to receive millions of dollars in fees. Instead, the project appears doomed after most of the teams pulled out with fans, players and politicians decrying the plan,” wrote David Hellier and Harry Wilson for Bloomberg. “JPMorgan is now left to assess the fallout from a proposal that appears to have underestimated the potential backlash from upending a sport with deep traditions and local roots.”

That fallout included at least one downgrade for JPMorgan’s sustainability ratings. One ratings agency, Standard Ethics, announced on Wednesday that it “judges both the orientations shown by the football clubs involved in the project and those of the U.S. Bank to be contrary to sustainability best practices, which are defined by the agency according to UN, OECD and European Union guidelines, and take into account the interests of the stakeholders.”

In other words, JPMorgan’s ESG grade fell a notch from “adequate” (EE-) to “non-compliant.” (E+). Maybe not as dramatic as Neymar faking an injury, but still: Ouch!

Even the level-headed, buttoned-down Financial Times could not hold itself back from throwing shade at the Super League, the participating clubs and JPMorgan. “No one at JPMorgan Chase apparently had read the letter to shareholders written by its chair and chief executive Jamie Dimon in the bank’s latest annual report,” FT’s Philips Stephens wrote. “Published only this month, the letter showcased Dimon’s well-publicized efforts to position the bank as a leader in the brave new world of socially responsible and sustainable capitalism.”

Stephens also wasn’t having any of Dimon’s previous talk about “community.”

“Tell that to the players and supporters of such hallowed institutions as Manchester United and Liverpool, and to the communities in which these great teams grew up. The plan to supplant the present Champions League with a ‘closed’ competition between Europe’s richest clubs promised to tear up the game’s traditions, destroy its competitive spirit and mock the towns and cities in which the teams are rooted.”

Marketers will tell you this concept should have been rigorously floated or “test-marketed.” Comms professionals will acknowledge this Super League could have been super-communicated in a more professional manner. But the Super League’s demise points to a common mistake many companies make when they make what they may think are bold, far-reaching visionary decisions.

Whether it’s a poorly-named food product or an accessory with a design that smacks of racism, many businesses still have not learned this simple rule: When you embark on developing that new product, service or even overall strategy, you must include representatives of just about every stakeholder group in those meetings and strategy calls. A fan would have reminded this group of owners about how important the game’s, and teams’, legacy and history are to them — and the fact that the revenues are surely rolling in, starting with the fact many of these soccer pitches are named after a UAE- or Qatar-based airline. A player would have reminded them about the emotional pull of the chance for representing your country every four years, as well as how even more games add to the risk of injury.

Now, these club owners have put their bottom lines at risk instead of generating rewards – starting with Johnson’s threat to drop a “legislative bomb,” such as paving the way for fans to have an ownership stake in these teams.

Image credit: Tim Bechervaise/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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