What business owners can learn from the ESL disaster

I’m hardly a big football fan, but even I have found myself absolutely hooked to the story about the rise and fall of the European Super League over the past few days. It’s been fascinating to see the huge reaction on the news and on social media, only to then watch as the plan disintegrated within a matter of days. 

There is a lot for business owners, leaders and marketers to learn from this epic fail of a decision. These are just some of the things I’ve picked out. 

Understand why your customers like your products

The owners of the Super League football clubs clearly have no idea about why football fans in this country absolutely love the sport. They truly believed that the fans would spend their hard-earned money on watching a tournament that was essentially closed off. You can’t get relegated, and the way other clubs that aren’t in the league might get ‘chosen’ to join is purely at the discretion of the existing clubs. It wasn’t merit-based. The reaction from the public has been “Where’s the competition in that?” 

One of the joys of the Premier League is to know that clubs like Leicester could go on to win the league after only recently being promoted. It’s being able to watch Aston Villa beat Liverpool 7-2 in one of their first games of the season. It’s the sense of competition and the threat of being relegated that makes it exciting. Yes, fans want to see their teams do well, but they want to watch them earn it every single year, not just be given access to an elite league because of their finances, history or because they have a global fan base.  

Many business owners have made mistakes like this by not truly understanding why their customers buy their products. They’ve changed key features of their products without consulting their customers, and there have been some monumental errors in judgement. Coca-Cola decided to tamper with their flavour way back in 1985 when some blind testing had indicated that people preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. You can guess what happened – sales plummeted, and longtime customers complained until the decision was reversed. Sound familiar? 

The best way to find out why your customers like your products? Ask! You can also read reviews, social media, forums & Reddit threads, immerse yourself in what people are saying about your company. Ask your customers – why do you love this product or service, and what do you never want us to change?

Be wary of cultural and societal differences 

A common reaction I heard was that the owners of the 6 clubs ‘don’t understand English football’. To quote my boyfriend, “They’re trying to make football more American, and American sports are sh**e.”

Tim Wigmore & Jeremy Wilson put it slightly more eloquently in the Telegraph article “The Super League stitch-up is the obvious next step in the Americanisation of European football”

“The so-called ‘Dirty Dozen’s’ Super League proposals do not simply threaten the whole fabric of European football: they also represent the relentless Americanisation of the sport – a world in which, however much you lose on the field, you are guaranteed to win off it.”

There are differences in the British and the American consumer that need to be taken into account. There are differences between many different groups of consumers, so business owners need to be wary of this and learn more about cultural differences before launching products in new markets. Look at what happened to supermarket giant Tesco when they tried to enter the Japanese market in 2003. They failed to understand the retail landscape in Japan before launching the 100 billion pound venture. The large, impersonal superstores were at odds with Japan’s local stores that were often key parts of the local community. Japanese shoppers also prefer a personal touch, which is impossible in the superstore model. Tesco eventually left the Japanese market in 2011. 

Create a team of local employees who can sense check your decision making from a cultural perspective, to save you from making very expensive mistakes. Make sure that your employees know that they can speak up to raise potential cultural issues – you absolutely don’t want a team of “yes men” like Ed Woodward.  

Know who the trusted, independent commentators are in your industry

All hail Gary Neville! Gary’s first impassioned speech on the ESL after the news broke was, in my opinion, one of the catalysts for the huge backlash that ensued over the next few days. He tore down the owners of the 6 football clubs and the idea of the Super League in an initial interview that went viral on social media within minutes of filming

 

Business owners can learn from this. There are people who your customers listen to and respect that work completely independently from you and your company. Of course, they aren’t normally sky sports pundits, but they could be journalists, bloggers, influencers, even just friends and family. If you don’t look out for your customers and look out for your biggest advocates, these champions of your business could change the public perception of your company overnight. 

Never underestimate the underdog or the newcomer 

These 6 English clubs thought of themselves above the rest of the 14 in the Premier League, despite many of them not having won a trophy in years. They genuinely seemed to believe they were ‘untouchable’ and believed that they could create a scenario where the other 14 clubs weren’t worthy of being able to join the super league. Owners of clubs such as Man United and Arsenal believed that they had a right to be watched and adored by fans no matter what decisions they made, simply because of their financial power.

Business owners with hubris tend to be caught short by challenger brands. You can imagine the likes of legacy banks RBS and Barclays feeling unthreatened by the likes of Monzo and Starling when they first heard of them. We can assume that our customers won’t go anywhere because we overemphasise our own importance to them. It’s proven to us that the assumption that legacy and history means more to customers than exciting new features and simpler products simply isn’t true. Customers will move to better products and to companies that listen to them and look after them. 

Don’t take your customers for granted 

It ties into all of the previous points, but what this ESL disaster shows is that you should never take your customers for granted. The owners thought that the fans would always be there, whatever the money, whatever the competition and whatever the circumstances. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Some of my friends who have been United season ticket holders for 30 years were going to sell their tickets to support our local Salford City instead, in protest against this move. The hundreds of Chelsea fans blocking the players bus from getting into the stadium would rather halt a game than let this happen. 

Your customers will not always be there, so never ever treat them like you think they will.