The Super League That Never Was

Business lessons from a proposed, quickly scrapped, soccer league

Apr 22, 2021
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – It took only two days for major European soccer clubs to realize that the Super League wasn’t so super after all.

On Sunday, 12 of Europe’s top soccer clubs announced plans to break away from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in favor of forming their own 20-team league – the Super League. The move would see the founding clubs garnering roughly $400 million by their own estimates, four times more than the prize pool distributed by UEFA to the reigning Champions League winners, Bayern Munich.

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

By Tuesday, all of the English Premier League’s “Big Six” – Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal – withdrew from the plan. Italy’s AC Milan and Inter Milan soon followed, along with Spain’s Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

So what went wrong for the Super League? It was an idea that was appealing to clubs because of the potential payout, says Maryland Smith’s Henry C. Boyd III, but it ultimately lacked a major part of the equation – the fans.

“When you’re in the midst of developing a new product there are certain things you have to be aware of, chief among them is the notion of compatibility,” says Boyd, 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? 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, says Boyd. By design, five slots are awarded by the League to outside football clubs performing at the highest level on a rotating basis every year. However, with no fear of relegation being placed upon the 15 founding clubs, they ostensibly would be shielded from real competition, he says.

“What we love about sports is experiencing a Cinderella story, watching an underdog beat the odds and climb its way to the top.  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,” says Boyd. “Instead, the League will invite some outside clubs that manage to percolate up to the top, but probably year after year, it would be a rehash of the same names over and over again.”

To exclude smaller clubs, Boyd says, is a move that seems Darwinian in nature. On a financial note, the existence of the Super League would redistribute even more media revenue toward the larger clubs at the expense of the smaller clubs that remained in UEFA, he says.

“The issue people had with this proposal is that it came across as a winner-take-all model for the owners. Yet, in the long run, the smaller clubs have to be in the mix for this to work,” says 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 says. The rallying cry of “created by the poor, stolen by the rich” has gained traction of late. There is plenty of work cut out for these potential Super League teams in terms of making amends and restoring trust with their supporters.

This whole episode revealed that people hold the power, he says, 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,” says 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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About the Expert(s)

Hank Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. Hank received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Duke University (with an emphasis in Consumer Behavior) and his J.D. in Intellectual Property from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the age of 24, he received his MBA in Marketing from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to graduate study, he obtained his A.B. in Chemistry (with an emphasis in Biophysics) from Princeton University. Hank’s opinions have appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Washington Business Journal, Wisconsin State Journal, Sports Illustrated, Crain's Chicago Business, Morning Consult and CNBC. He has participated in live interviews on Maryland Public Television, NBC News (local affiliate WMTV Channel 15 News), CBS News (local affiliate WISC-TV Channel 3 News), WTOP, WMAL, WIBA and Knowledge @ Wharton.

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