Those who didn’t catch the announcement late on Sunday 18th April awoke on Monday to learn that eleven of Europe’s biggest clubs – and Arsenal – had agreed to join the European Super League. A project that had seemed increasingly inevitable had now apparently come to fruition, led by the heavily indebted Real Madrid and their president, Florentino Perez.

However, not two days later, the project began to unravel. Manchester City and Chelsea were the first clubs to pull out of the league. Undeterred by contractual obligations and hefty financial penalties, the two clubs most lukewarm to the move decided that keeping their supporters happy in the short-term was a better option than whatever financial rewards they may reap in the long term.

Undoubtedly, widespread condemnation from supporters organisations and the threat of legal action from all corners – UEFA, FIFA, The Premier League, the British government – forced their hand somewhat. In the end, it likely seemed far too much aggravation for them to aid Perez in realising his dream of steadying the shaky ship of Real Madrid with a closed-shop football tournament bankrolled by JP Morgan.

By Wednesday morning, almost every other club had pulled out. Fearful executives posted Nick Clegg-like apologetic videos to social media, no doubt alarmed by the ferocity with which even their own fans had turned on them. Even now, a week after this debacle, angry supporters clubs are trying to force out the executive teams that dared to even ponder breaking with tradition by entering into the Super League.

A Catalogue of Mistakes

What went wrong? A lot, to be honest. The idea of a European Super League that doesn’t include the likes of Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain, Ajax, and FC Porto is almost absurd, to begin with. Never mind other proud and storied clubs from the “smaller” leagues such as Steaua Bucharest, Celtic, Rangers, Red Star Belgrade, Benfica, CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, RSC Anderlecht, and many, many more.

There was the presumed arrogance of these twelve clubs. Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa might no longer be regarded among England’s elite, but both have won Europe’s top prize more times than Spurs and Arsenal. Similarly, Leicester City has claimed the Premier League crown more recently than either North London club or Manchester United. Between 1967 and 1997, Real Madrid didn’t win the European Cup, but Feyenoord, HSV, and Marseille did, and it was Aberdeen who defeated Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup Final. That’s the thing about football – about all sports, really – those who sit at the top of the tree today do not have a divine right to be there.

Supporters Are the Customer

Moreover, and it’s something that many businesses run into, the boards of these clubs failed to understand their own market. Sport attracts people because it’s unpredictable. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph garnered so much attention worldwide because it was one of those things that shouldn’t happen. In these days of “all the football, all the time”, The FA Cup may have lost some of its lustre, but the giant killings always catch our eye.

It’s not just football. At the 1980 Olympic Games, a team of US college players defeated the clear-favourite Soviet Union in an ice hockey game now known as the Miracle on Ice. In 2008, an undefeated New England Patriots faced off against the New York Giants in Superbowl XLII. The Giants, who had lost six times that season, had not been expected to stop the Patriots from completing a perfect season, and yet they did just that. Japan defeating South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is probably as famous as New Zealand’s triumph over Australia in the final.

Understanding your market and your customer is vital in any business. The boards of these clubs didn’t understand football – they didn’t understand why people are so passionate about this game. Consequently, they made a colossal mistake that will have long-lasting repercussions. Reputations have been tarnished, loyalties have been questioned, and a sizeable proportion of the supporters will take a long time to forgive this transgression.

When we tell our clients to show their customers the value of their offer, we talk about value in terms of demonstrating an understanding of the customer’s problem and the way your offer will solve it.

When There is No Problem to Solve…

Outside the mind of Florentino Perez and a handful of other executives, the European Super League is a solution to a non-existent problem. Football fans are the customer. While they may be upset about VAR, dodgy decisions, and the cost of an away trip, they’re not upset about not being able to watch Manchester United vs Barcelona six times a season.

Sport to the fans isn’t a business; it’s not about money and sponsorships and lucrative TV rights deals – it’s about memories. It’s about watching Germany thump Brazil 7-1 on their own patch and knowing they saw it happen. It’s about seeing their team triumph against all of the odds and leaving a pundit’s face covered in egg. It’s about the rollercoaster of emotions from beginning to end, whether that’s a single game, a whole season, or an entire life.

Had the CEOs and board members of ESL clubs understood this, they would never have made this mistake, but we can learn from it. We can endeavour to understand our customers in a way that Florentino Perez simply does not. We can do this by visualising our typical customer and understanding what attracts them to our product or service. What do they get out of it, and what do they hope to get of it? Because if we don’t understand our customers, how can we expect to serve them properly?

To succeed in business, your customer simply must come first.


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