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Opinion - European Super League Controversy: What Business Lessons Can We Learn?

Stick or twist? It’s a question we all have to face. Keep doing what we know is successful, or risk something less safe – but potentially more lucrative?


The intense controversy surrounding the European Super League raises some fascinating questions on this issue. Here’s a quick recap of the situation for those unfamiliar: 12 football clubs – six of which are English – announced their intention to form a breakaway European league. These 12 clubs would be permanent members of the new European Super League (ESL), with three additional spaces available for other clubs to qualify.


The news blindsided the sporting world. Managers of competing clubs, such as Pep Guardiola of Manchester City, weren’t even aware of the development until Sunday evening. Since then, there have been ominous threats from governing bodies FIFA and UEFA, and the UK government said it was considering legislation to stop the six English clubs from breaking away. For a few dramatic days, observers were held in suspense, unsure if Europe’s top teams would keep playing hardball and go their own way or have their bluff called by the powersthat-be.


Fan reaction to the proposed new league has been overwhelmingly negative. For a sport that has been regularly dealing with FIFA corruption scandals and other controversies in recent years, the news felt like another example of short-termism and profiteering at the expense of ordinary punters. “Football is for the fans” has become the unofficial slogan of defiance to the new league. And now, with the backlash gathering more momentum by the hour, the six English clubs have pulled out, and the entire league seems on the brink of collapse.


In my view, the problem stemmed from a severe lack of human-centricity in the 12 clubs proposing the breakaway. As we’ve already seen, this was a decision taken at the highest level: the consultation process didn’t even reach the managers of the clubs in question, let alone the fans. Presumably, the clubs got together and decided their most lucrative option would be to establish a cartel: a league composed only of the biggest clubs, who could hoover up huge TV licensing deals and enrich themselves enormously in the process.


It seems, at no point, was there serious consideration of how the wider fanbase – the club’s paying customers – might respond to the move or whether their opinion mattered at all. And the response we’re seeing - whether through sanctions from football’s governing bodies or boycott-type behaviour from fans - shows the ESL magic money tree is not as bounteous as initially thought.


In business, there’s often a tendency to be biased towards your operations and priorities – even if success ultimately depends on external stakeholders endorsing your products or services. Unless you take action to counteract this operational bias, blinkered thinking will remain in place. Customer-centricity requires an active shift in mindset – or preferably, one baked into the organisation from its inception.


If we’re being generous, we could argue that the 12 clubs took the American sporting model as inspiration – one where a fixed number of franchises compete in a national league without promotion or relegation – and thought it would translate to the European market. But it seems more likely that they considered this move simply in the context of their short-term financial interests.


I’m sure there were some slick presentations going around outlining just how rich the top clubs could get as a result of the new league. But such a narrow focus on moneymaking – even for a profit-seeking business – can be a disastrous move, as the legislative and popular backlash is already demonstrating.


That’s the fascinating oxymoron at the heart of modern businesses: they exist to profit, but they can’t make sustainable and ethical profits unless they access some higher purpose as an organisation. This is why a customer-centric approach is best: it gives business a raison d’être beyond just making money, and in doing so, lays the foundations for real business success.


Thinking about things from a purely selfish perspective is incredibly dangerous. You might believe you are an influential and powerful business, but in reality, your power is due to customers’ decisions. Alienate them, and you lose whatever influence you once had. That’s the mistake the 12 clubs have made in this case – and, like a goalkeeper rushing off his line, they may well rue their error.


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