The fans have prevailed and the short-lived European Super League is no more. The lure of a share in the big bucks the league promised had been strong – including splitting the €3.25bn welcome bonus paid for by JP Morgan – but all six founding English teams have turned their backs on the mooted venture. Becoming the poster-children of self-interest and corporate greed obviously proved too much to bear.
But was the league really such a bad idea? Football is, after all, a huge global business. The idea of a closed league that no team can be relegated from may make no sense to those on the outside looking in, but for those on the inside it clearly had a lot of appeal. A guaranteed share of billions of euros in television rights is an attractive carrot at any time.
After a year in which Covid-19 restrictions have impacted on even the largest clubs’ finances, tapping into a sizeable – and reliable – revenue stream would surely be every business owner’s dream. And, as American sports franchises like the NFL have proven, closed leagues can be hugely successful in a business context.
But, contrary to popular opinion, business is not just about making money. Your brand, staff, customers and values are equally as important and, in reality, have to come first. Without them, no business can thrive.
You can buy a business and in doing so inherit its name, brand and values. That is exactly what the American businessmen who own Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, the Russian and British billionaires who control Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and the Emirati Sheikh who bought Manchester City did. But in signing up to the breakaway league they made one classic business mistake: they assumed they had acquired their clubs’ history and traditions too. Membership of a league that ensures success regardless of performance would have made a mockery of these clubs’ histories and traditions. In spite of the money involved, the business case just didn’t stack up.
Then there’s the staff. Businesses are only successful because of their people – they are the ones on the front line showcasing your products and interacting with your customers – so it stands to reason that if you look after your staff they will look after your business. The owners of the Super League teams overlooked that. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and James Milner, who had to field questions about their team’s membership of the league, revealed they hadn’t been informed about the plan until it was announced to the public. It was an impossible situation for club owners to put their people in, and one no business owner could expect to win respect from.
Staff have a right to be at least informed of decisions that could impact on their future. As membership of the league could have prevented players from representing their national side in international games, it was a serious own-goal from the Super League Six.
Most importantly, though, all businesses must put their customers at the heart of everything they do. And when it comes to football, customers are in a league of their own. I might choose to do my big shop at Tesco one week, then quite happily go to Morrison’s the next, but football isn’t like that. “Customers” stay with their club for life; their loyalty is unwavering and it needs to be reciprocated.
There’s a reason why customers of football businesses are called fans, and those fans are the reason football clubs endure while other businesses come and go. As football legend Sir Matt Busby put it: “Football is nothing without fans.” The very least the Super League clubs should have done was consult with those fans before attempting to foist such a game-changing plan upon them.
Sure, football is a huge global business, but it is a business like no other, with customers whose loyalty is absolute and who expect absolute loyalty in return. Bill Shankly once said:
“At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”
The Super League’s founders have just discovered what he meant.
Neil Bradbrook is an expert in adaptive business strategy and managing change, whose career includes senior roles at General Electric, RBS, and Santander. He formed Ahead Business Consulting in 2019. It helps leaders plan, implement, and engage their customers and staff to drive greater success. Prior to this, he led a 160-strong team, transformation, and digital innovation consultancy, growing it from £11m to £23m.