The European Super League and the Power of Fans
From r/wallstreetbets to a Wall Street bet — What the demise of the European Super League tells us about the power of fans and consumers in shaping brands.
As consumers have become more connected, informed and empowered than ever before, due to exponential increases in access to information and choice, our expectations for the role that brands play in our lives have shifted. Yes, we still prioritize ease-of-access and speed, but so too do we demand that brands have a purpose that aligns with our ethics and values, that brands invite meaningful participation, and that brands empower us to engage on our own terms with a world undergoing radical change. In turn, brands have become increasingly transparent and open to being shaped by their consumers, a shift that James Surowiecki astutely forecast almost two decades ago in his book The Wisdom of Crowds.
The brands that have responded best to consumers have not only survived the turmoil of the last year, but thrived. In 2020, while the Brand Value of 54 of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands (BGB) index top 100 declined (compared with only 29 in 2019), the value of the overall table still grew by close to 10% (versus an average of 6% in the last 5 years), reflecting a commitment of brands to the critical Brand Strength factors of Affinity, Agility and Empathy.
These double-digit riser brands are successful in staying close to their customers and anticipating their evolving needs (Empathy). They move fast, bringing new products and services to market and, where necessary, pivoting to address changing customer desires (Agility). Ultimately, they are creating emotional connections with their customers, thereby providing value and also making their own brands more resilient in a time of crisis (Affinity).
Who really owns football?
The convergence of sports, gaming, the arts and entertainment has created ripe conditions for the exploration and evolution of these factors. A new model of engagement is unfolding, with brands like Roblox, Fan Controlled Football, and Socios taking the active participation models pioneered by entertainment giants like Spotify, LEGO and Netflix and evolving these to empower consumers to directly own and shape content and brand experiences. Notably, 62% of the fastest rising brands in the BGB table have significant subscription models which place customers at the center of their business. These brands are allowing us to connect into our passions, each other and, at least temporarily, allowing us to feel in control of events beyond our walls and screens.
As a manifestation of this trend, Reddit’s WallStreetBets (r/wallstreetbets) captured the news cycle earlier this year, as a community built through a shared passion to democratize day trading capitalized on an opportunity to disrupt hedge funds’ repeated shorting of GameStop’s stock. The impact of this consumer activism was profound. As GameStop’s stock price skyrocketed thanks to r/wallstreetbets’ activity, those holding “short” positions lost close to $5 billion in wealth. While GameStop’s stock price (NYS:GME) has come down from its highs in January, it is still trading at close to ten times its value at the end of last year. Perhaps more importantly, the battle between an online community and established hedge funds caused us to re-evaluate the fundamental fairness of our financial system, how we decide “winners” and “losers,” and, at a deeper level, analyze who really owns and determines the value of a brand.
Only a few months later, Wall Street is again in the news, this time for JP Morgan Chase’s involvement in the financing of the short-lived European Super League (ESL). For its forty-eight hour life, this new competition featured twelve of the world’s twenty most valuable clubs as initial members, and promised to provide “significantly greater economic growth and support for European football,” while ensuring that “founding clubs will receive an amount of €3.5 billion solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic.”
Much has been written on the why behind this move, and how the current economics of the beautiful game at its highest levels, and the fallout from the pandemic, catalyzed this seismic decision. In order to fully understand this move in context, however, it is perhaps more useful to start with an examination of the who and the how. Just as r/wallstreetbets prompted us to reconsider the winners and losers in our financial system, and who actually creates the value of a stock and a brand, so too does the European Super League effort reveal a bigger existential question: Who really owns football?
This is more than just watching football, it’s a way of life. It’s caring about the beautiful game, about the values we cherish.
Arsène Wenger, Former Arsenal Football Club Manager
In a sport where supporters view being labelled as “consumers” as a dirty word, and which is built on identity, connection and community, articulated so well by Eduardo Galeano —“[you] can change your [partner], political parties or religions, but [you] cannot change [your] football team”— the answer is simple: football is owned by the fans. As brands realize the increased urgency of leading with empathy and authenticity in order to build Trust and Affinity, the decision by the owners of Europe’s leading clubs to radically alter the fundamental structure of the world’s most popular sport (in the truest sense of that word) — all seemingly without consulting their employees, their players or their fans — was met with rapid, pointed and predictable resistance. The only surprise is that this reaction caught many owners of the founding clubs off guard. These individuals would have been wise to heed the words of former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, a man who predicted the rise of a Super League over ten years before its existence, and who presciently reminded us in his farewell speech “this is more than just watching football, it’s a way of life. It’s caring about the beautiful game, about the values we cherish.”
So what comes next? Football is riding a cresting wave of growth, thanks to three decades of rapid globalization and commercialization. Coming out of a pandemic that wreaked havoc to the game’s financial structures, however, with European football leagues facing over $4 billion in expected revenue loss due to the coronavirus in the 2019/2020 season (and with more to come, reflecting a full 2020/2021 season with games played behind closed doors), arguments on improving the financial health of the game are merited. For their part, fans do want their clubs to innovate, to grow and capture revenue, and ultimately to succeed — provided these moves do not sacrifice their clubs’ and their own core values.
Europe’s leading clubs would be wise to remember then that the decision does not need to be between local engagement or global relevance, purpose or profit, and shareholder or stakeholder value. Rather, by building inclusivity, empathy and trust into their brands, these actors can remain agile to lead in a radically changing world, all without losing the affinity of their supporters, which research has proven to positively impact brand loyalty. As the European Super League ends its short-lived existence, the owners of these clubs should act now to engage their employees and supporters, understand the true balance of power in their ecosystem, and build back the trust they’ve lost.
Embracing participation is no small feat, as our BGB analysis shows that both Empathy and Participation are the hardest Brand Strength factors to master. The payoff for doing so, however, is huge. Time and again, we see that having a strong brand is a leading indicator of a business’ ability to weather a crisis.
By rethinking their approach, and putting their fans’ needs at the core of their brands, these clubs can not only shift course and weather the current storm, but also unlock the very revenue streams that the ESL promised to secure. As Bill Shankly aptly said, “at a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.” The events of the last two-days have revealed that supporters within that trinity are an under-leveraged force. By listening to these fans before taking action, and building their brands from the outside-in, clubs can identify the right moves to make that will maximize long-term returns.
For the fans themselves, having seen what their collective voice can engender, the onus of leadership remains. Will these groups continue to push for change, and devote similar energy and enthusiasm to addressing the urgent issues that remain in the broader game, including the lack of diversity in leadership, discrimination on the pitch and in the stands, and gender inequality? Time will reveal the extent of these changes and fans’ efforts, but well beyond football, the power of consumers to reshape brands, and their demands for democratization (Empathy) and ownership (Participation), will continue to grow.
The power of consumers to reshape brands, and their demands for democratization (Empathy) and ownership (Participation), will continue to grow.
 Brands experiencing double digit % growth (i.e. greater than or equal to 10% YoY)
 Brands experiencing double digit % growth (i.e. greater than or equal to 10% YoY)
 Brands with an average Brand Strength Score of 70 or above between 2006-13