Three lessons from football’s European Super League disaster

Businesses can learn from the failed attempt to create a European Super League, says Matthew Lynn.

Arsenal fans protesting
You have to keep your hardcore supporters on side
(Image credit: © Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In the business school textbooks, the launch of “New Coke” in 1985 will no longer be written up as the biggest flop of all time. (It had to be withdrawn, and replaced by the classic formula, after only 79 days on the market.) That honour will now surely go to the launch of the European Super League.

The plan by 12 of the largest teams in Europe, including Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Juventus, to launch a separate competition consisting largely of games between the elite, might have made the handful of teams included a lot of money – but the fans hated it, as did the sport’s governing bodies. Even prime ministers and presidents were quick to join the condemnation. The plan unravelled in less than 48 hours. It is now dead. There are three lessons to draw from the debacle.

1. Know your core customers

Every business has existing customers, and then all the new ones it might hope to reach if it just tweaked the product a little. There is often a tension between the two. In the north of England, people want to watch Liverpool play Burnley and Leeds. Across Asia, they would rather see them play Barcelona and Manchester City: they don’t know where Burnley is, and don’t really care. This problem is not unique to football. Apple devotees want upmarket, top-of-the range phones, but another billion people just want a cheaper device that works well. Lots of loyal customers want top-of-the-range, innovative Bavarian engineering from BMW, but millions more just want a cheap, small car. The point is that the hardcore loyal customers have to be kept on board, even as you extend the brand and develop new markets. That can be a tricky tightrope to walk sometimes, and it is very easy to fall off. But it is the only safe way to grow the business – and when you get it right, it is a brilliant strategy.

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2. Read the room

If you are going to make a radical change to the business model, then you need to choose the right moment. After a year of lockdown, and with the Covid-19 epidemic still raging around the world, people understandably place more value on anything that has a sense of place and continuity. There is no great desire for radical change. Everyone just wants life to get back to normal. It was the worst possible time to attempt a radical reorganisation of the European game, and one that might have bankrupted many smaller teams that people still feel very attached to. In a buoyant, optimistic moment, the clubs might have got away with it. In the spring of 2021, they didn’t have a chance. It wouldn’t have been a good time for Cadbury to change the flavour of Dairy Milk, or for M&S to stop selling socks. Likewise, it wasn’t the right moment to ditch a football league more than a century old for something new.

3. Keep the staff on board

Volkswagen couldn’t make a switch to electric vehicles if all the engineers came out on day one and said they hated them, and warned everyone they would break down before they reached the first roundabout. Barclays couldn’t close all its branches and switch everyone to app banking if the employees walked out saying your money was not safe. For a change as large as this, the clubs had to make sure the managers and the leading players were all signed up to the transformation, and were willing to defend it in public. Instead, it was as much of a surprise to them as it was to everyone else. That was simply incompetent management – and it made an already difficult sell impossible.

So the European Super League is dead, for now anyway, but it wasn’t all for nothing. The big clubs were grappling with issues that confront many companies. Now at least those companies have some guidance. The Super League made a total hash of their plans and in doing so made clear to everyone else some of the mistakes that have to be avoided. It is unlikely that anyone will say thank you – but perhaps they should.

Matthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg, and writes weekly commentary syndicated in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Miami Herald. He is also an associate editor of Spectator Business, and a regular contributor to The Spectator. Before that, he worked for the business section of the Sunday Times for ten years. 

He has written books on finance and financial topics, including Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis and The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031. Matthew is also the author of the Death Force series of military thrillers and the founder of Lume Books, an independent publisher.