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Why European Soccer Fans Gave Super League a Red Card

UMD Marketing Expert Mulls Lessons From Proposed, Quickly Scrapped Elite League

By Pablo Suarez

Fans oppose plans for Super League in Manchester, UK

Photo by Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Soccer fans outside Old Trafford Stadium, the home field of Manchester United Football Club, in Manchester, U.K., display a handmade banner opposing plans for a "Super League" of elite teams earlier this month. The planned league failed before it started because organizers didn't realize fans would oppose upending European football traditions just to further enrich top clubs, a UMD marketing expert says.

It took only two days for major European soccer clubs to realize that their proposed “Super League” wasn’t so super after all.

On Sunday, 12 of Europe’s top clubs announced plans to break away from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in favor of forming their own 20-team league featuring only a self-proclaimed best of the best: the Super League. The founding clubs would each cash in to the tune of $400 million just to start with, which is about four times what the most recent Champions League winner, Bayern Munich, took home as prize money. That would be followed by utter dominance of the European football world—or so they thought.

By Tuesday, the grand power and money grab had collapsed; all of the English Premier League’s “Big Six” had withdrawn—Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal—followed by Italy’s AC Milan and Inter Milan, as well as Spain’s Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

So what went wrong for the Super League? Simple, said Maryland Smith’s Henry C. Boyd III: While the potential payouts appealed to the clubs, it left out a more important part of the equation—the fans whose money the clubs depend on.

The announcement was met with dismay and backlash, with fans, left-out clubs, and even heads of state across Europe and around the world, echoing indictments of betrayal and greed on the part of the renegade clubs.

When you’re developing a new product, exploring “compatibility”—how it fits with a consumer’s lifestyle, needs, values and beliefs—is a must, and the Super League dropped the ball on that, said Boyd, a clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“What’s the existing culture for the product you’re offering?” he said. “For soccer, it’s the people’s game, dubbed ‘the beautiful game,’ and uprooting a well-established tradition like UEFA while treating fans as an afterthought goes against that DNA.”

Another dilemma raised by the Super League concept is one of competitive integrity, said Boyd. By design, five slots would have been awarded by the new league to outside football clubs performing at the highest level on a rotating basis every year. However, with no fear of relegation to a lower league for any of the 15 founding clubs, they ostensibly would be shielded from real competition, he said.

Meanwhile, “What we love about sports is experiencing a Cinderella story, watching an underdog beat the odds and climb its way to the top,” Boyd said. “Being a perennial favorite means nothing during the Championship season. Having to prove one’s mettle each season goes to the heart of sports. This essential component of merit seems to be in short supply under the Super League format.”

There was also little chance of much variation in outside clubs that would manage to percolate up for inclusion in the five rotating slots, further shrinking the world of soccer. To exclude smaller clubs, Boyd said, was seen by many disgruntled fans as a Darwinian, explicitly winner-take-all business move that would redistribute even more media revenue toward the larger clubs at the expense of the smaller clubs that remained in UEFA.

“Yet, in the long run, the smaller clubs have to be in the mix for this to work,” said Boyd. “If you cut off the cream, you’ve devalued media rights and coverage across the board.”

For now, it seems the notion of a Super League has been put to rest, but fans and clubs won’t be quick to forgive and forget, Boyd said. The rallying cry of “created by the poor, stolen by the rich” has gained traction of late among fans,  and erstwhile Super League teams now have plenty of work to do making amends and restoring trust with their supporters, he said.

This whole episode illustrates that people really do hold the power, he said, and organizations can’t simply drag consumers into a different way of thinking.

“The best thing to do is own this transgression and concede that a hard lesson has been learned from this debacle,” said Boyd. “Moving forward, a club owner must pledge to abide by the organization’s values and reiterate that the club is beholden to its fans. That’s going to be the key.”

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