Planned European Super League could be bad news for advertisers

Negative fan sentiment towards the planned competition would make it a far less desirable property than the Uefa Champions League, Octagon managing director said.

Man City vs. Real Madrid: fixture would take place more frequently in ESL, if not quite every week (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty)
Man City vs. Real Madrid: fixture would take place more frequently in ESL, if not quite every week (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty)

Update: although all six English clubs have withdrawn from the Super League, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli - a key driver behind the project - has insisted it will still go ahead.

The European Super League – the new international football competition launched by 12 of Europe’s richest clubs, including six from England – met with widespread condemnation when it was announced yesterday, from every quarter: other football clubs, national leagues including the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, Uefa, current and former players, fans of all clubs including the 12 in question, and even one Boris Johnson.

It may have been convenient timing for the PM to have something to distract attention from the sleaze accusations engulfing his government, but the fact he felt prompted to criticise an apparently pro-capitalist move in such uncompromising terms shows just how universal the sentiment against the idea is in society.

The ESL, which is designed so that its founding members can never be relegated from it, is arguably bad news for football as entertainment – one of the things that adds to the value of the Champions’ League is the fierce competition for places among clubs in the top leagues, not least in England. The case from the clubs’ point of view is clear though: their owners will never again need to fear the loss of income that comes from failure to qualify.

Does it have merit?

It’s likely the clubs of the ESL would have no trouble attracting top players, and audiences would be bound to follow. But sports marketing agencies that spoke to Campaign about the plans were divided on whether the ESL would be good news for sponsors and advertisers looking to reach football audiences.

“In the short to medium term, it is unlikely to be [good for brands]”, Joel Seymour-Hyde, managing director of Octagon, said. The UCL, he argues, offers “a perfect combination of premium brand, huge TV audiences, and the best quality football”, resulting in one of the most competitive sponsorship bidding processes of any property in the world.

“In light of an undefined broadcast model, and such negative fan sentiment, it seems unlikely that [the ESL] would deliver to sponsors and advertisers the guaranteed value that the UCL offered,” he said.

Brands would be divided at first on whether to become involved with a competition that risks being a “toxic property”, he added – a situation that could be exacerbated by fan activism and boycotts, which have been suggested as a possible consequence of the ESL going ahead.

Former Synergy CEO Tim Crow expressed his reservations on Twitter

While the more traditional fans of clubs such as Man Utd and Liverpool might balk at the idea of the ESL, the plans have been drawn up with a recognition that the audiences of these clubs are global, Matt Readman, chief strategy officer at Dark Horses, said.

“The big domestic football clubs now look to emerging international audiences in India, the US and the Far East as their largest potential for growth,” he said. “These fans think very differently to season ticket holders in Europe, supporting multiple teams and prioritising the biggest games.”

The increased concentration of matches between the biggest clubs would have pros and cons from a commercial perspective, Readman added.

“Theoretically, the more concentrated the spectacle, the more eyeballs it receives, the more universal talking points it creates, the more value it delivers to the sponsors. The Super Bowl is the best example of this in action.

“Stripping away the perceived fat of the current model – fixtures like Rennes vs. FC Krasnodar for example – is also tempting to both broadcasters and sponsors who want the best teams playing each other all the time.”

But the flipside of this, Readman said, is that “the scarcity of the truly ‘big games’” is what makes the UCL “so special”, adding: “If Man City vs Real Madrid is happening every week the product will become normalised and devalued. With that fatigue, the ESL may find the draw of these matches less than they anticipated.”

Jamie Wynne-Morgan, UK chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, acknowledged that it can sometimes be “hard to take the emotion out of these things, but strong brands and broadcasters will also look at this with cool heads.

“The commercial impact for any new tournament, league or event will always be led by the quality of the product, the size of the audience it can reach and the fan sentiment behind it," he added. "Brands will always want to be associated with properties that are strong in all of those areas.”

Will it happen?

Given the ESL’s announcement came one day before Uefa agreed a new, 36-team format for the Champions League from 2024, the announcement of the ESL has been interpreted by many as an attempt by its founding clubs to increase their leverage with Uefa, rather than a plan genuinely intended to come to fruition.

“I suspect that this is yet another negotiating tactic by the big clubs to receive a greater proportion of the revenue,” Rupert Pratt, head of creative and insights at Snack Media, said. “In order for a negotiating tactic to succeed it can't be an empty threat and the clubs need to be prepared to execute it. However, until the majority of top European clubs come on board it isn't a viable negotiating tactic.”

To truly succeed, he added, the 12 current clubs from England, Spain and Italy need to be joined by teams from the other two big European leagues, Germany and France. But Germany’s two largest clubs, Borussia Dortmund and UCL reigning champions Bayern Munich, have explicitly ruled out joining the ESL.

Media analyst Ian Whittaker, in contrast, said he thought the ESL would happen “in some shape or form” – partly because it would be difficult for the other institutions in football to resist.

“The domestic leagues, particularly the English Premier League, which is the most successful globally, will be petrified by the thought its leading clubs will break away, with the impact this would have on the value of television rights,” he said. “Sky in particular is likely to put a large amount of pressure on the EPL to accept the outcome.”

The most likely media companies to buy the rights to show ESL games were Amazon and Disney, Whittaker suggested.

“Amazon has become very aggressive in buying sports rights on a global basis over the past six months, which suggests a coordinated strategy. Disney has experience of running major sporting events via ESPN and this service would help its Disney+ streaming service.”