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.

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 (It had to be withdrawn, and replaced by the classic formula, after only 79 days on the market.)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.  

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. 

Recommended

Whether it’s cryptocurrencies or investment trusts, make sure you know what you’re investing in
Investment strategy

Whether it’s cryptocurrencies or investment trusts, make sure you know what you’re investing in

Many people scoff at cryptocurrency speculators pouring money into an asset they may barely understand. But the same could be said of investors in man…
26 Jan 2022
How to invest in energy and metals as tech stocks crash
Commodities

How to invest in energy and metals as tech stocks crash

It’s been a terrible week for stockmarkets. But not everything is crashing – “real” assets such as metals and energy are holding up well and should ha…
26 Jan 2022
Shareholder capitalism: the world’s most powerful asset manager wants you to have your say
ESG investing

Shareholder capitalism: the world’s most powerful asset manager wants you to have your say

Under shareholder capitalism, the owners of the companies the big fund managers invest in are us – yet our voice is rarely heard. Now one asset manage…
26 Jan 2022
Julian Brigden: markets are at a huge inflexion point
Investment strategy

Julian Brigden: markets are at a huge inflexion point

Merryn talks to Julian Brigden of Macro Intelligence 2 Partners about the unwinding of the US stockmarket's super-bubble, and the risks and opportunit…
25 Jan 2022

Most Popular

Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners
Investment strategy

Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners

Under our system of shareholder capitalism it's not fund managers, it‘s the individual investors – the company's ultimate owners – who should be telli…
24 Jan 2022
Three innovative Asian stocks to buy now
Share tips

Three innovative Asian stocks to buy now

Professional investor Fay Ren of the Cerno Pacific Fund highlights three of her favourite Asian stocks to buy now
24 Jan 2022
Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is
Inflation

Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is

As inflation bites and the labour market remains tight, many of the nation's employees are asking for a pay rise. Merryn Somerset Webb explains why yo…
17 Jan 2022