When lack of fan engagement hits back hard: the European Super League

Katie Matthews takes a look at the debacle of the European Super League — and how fan engagement could have prevented the many problems that arose.


The Short-lived European Super League

In April of this year, twelve of the most powerful European football clubs announced they were forming a separate league that would override the sport’s existing one, the Champions League. The new, elite group called the European Super League was essentially rewarding teams that performed well and punishing those that did poorly. The monumental news was announced only via a press release and the club owners did not respond to the onslaught of questions and comments.

The new league lasted all of two days.

The blowback from fans was quick and loud and protests were staged across several countries. Legends of European football spoke out almost unanimously against it, and one by one, the clubs involved quickly dropped out. Even the UEFA, which organizes the Champions League, threatened to ban anyone playing for a Super League from future World Cups.

Football fans saw right through the thinly veiled greed and knew the move was centered around more money for the clubs’ owners. It was clear: the Super League wasn’t created in the best interest of fans. It didn’t fulfill any tangible needs of the fans, underscoring the importance of fan engagement in major decisions such as these.

The European Super League debacle placed fan engagement in the spotlight. It also served as a stark reminder that customers should always be top of mind when introducing a new service, product, or project.


What Exactly is Fan Engagement?

What happened in the example of the European Super League is something that can easily happen to businesses, organizations, or local government agencies. This is because many times we are confused around engagement.

When people think of communications, they tend to think of marketing. Typically, communications is placed under marketing. Marketing is the language of buying, selling, and segmenting. This means most people look at communicating and engaging through a slightly skewed lens. The thing about engagement and public relations is that it’s much more about the entire culture of doing business. This is important to keep in mind when considering risk reduction in community engagement.

When companies think of engagement as marketing, they end up forcing marketing-speak into areas that should be focused on the core intangibles of being human. When it comes to something we care about, whether it’s a person or a sport’s club, we have feelings around it, a sense of community and belonging, and sometimes a long history with the subject. In the case of the football league, many fans follow their favorite club because their parents, and grandparents did. The creators of the new super league completely ignored the core emotions that people have tied to their favorite sport.

Just because an organization should be fully aware of the feelings of their audience, doesn’t mean it should stop them from functioning as a business. A company needs to reach into that deep, rich experience of fans, and understand it far better. It’s about relationships first, not technical tactics.


Measuring Fan Engagement

Kevin Rye has been lobbying for better regulations and better fan engagement within the European football league for many years. His company, Think Fan Engagement, was formed with the purpose of finding a way to measure how each club was doing in terms of serving their customers, i.e., their fans.

He developed the Fan Engagement index, which came from years of working with fans and clubs and trying to create bridges between the two. Eventually, Kevin realized that the disconnect between the fans and the clubs was much like people who speak the same language, but with different dialects. This is a common issue, given how often businesses misunderstand communications and engagement.

Kevin’s Fan Engagement Index rates each football club by three criteria: dialogue, governance, and transparency. Each club then receives an overall score and the results are presented to the public and to the club owners.

While compiling the data for the first Fan Engagement Index in 2020, Kevin discovered that those clubs who weren’t doing a great job of treating their fans like customers were focusing on the front end: the technology and the apps. They were leaning on those tactical delivery methods. This is understandable, as that’s the low-hanging fruit, and the easy method to execute. However, any tool needs to be used in the right way and to the fullest extent.

When the clubs viewed their fan engagement index, it started a dialogue that went deeper than just beating their competition on the index. It had the effect Kevin was hoping for.

“It became about creating a much deeper understanding of how engagement works,” Kevin said, “It’s going far beyond just pushing messages out. It’s about how you integrate people into your organization.”


Engagement should be a two-way street. If your local organization has an upcoming project that will affect the community, you need to converse with your residents and understand that they are a fundamental part of decisions.

Lessons for Businesses, Organizations, and Government Agencies:

  • Ask yourself if what you’re doing is really for your audience. Will it benefit them?
  • Start the conversation/engagement early. Work towards consultation and decision.
  • Have a communications/media plan around your announcement or project. Communicate the project in several different ways to cover the preferences of many (news release, video, social media, etc).
  • Be ready to be responsive and address questions right away
  • Don’t clam up when things get tough or controversial. This is the time to communicate well and dispel rumors.
  • Make stakeholder engagement mandatory. Be open and transparent. Create a memorandum of understanding with the staff working on the project.

At the end of the day, engagement is about a culture and a process of conversation and listening.

“We are balancing interests,” Kevin stated. “It’s about striking a balance between the decisions of owners and operators, and the people you rely on to run the business.”

Want to hear more from Kevin? Listen to this podcast with Kevin Rye, Founder of Think Fan Engagement, and Jonathan Bradley, Engagement Specialist & Head of Practice Development at Bang the Table UK, where they discuss the importance of connecting with stakeholders further.

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