OPINION23 April 2021

Where should football go next? Listen to fans

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The collapse of the European Super League could have been avoided had the 12 breakaway owners correctly analysed the data and views of their supporters, writes Owen Laverty.

Where should football go next? A really badly written question, probably, but an extremely pertinent one this week. And one that unfortunately the owners of 12 of the biggest football clubs on the planet seemed to answer incorrectly when launching the now probably doomed European Super League (ESL).

Trying to unpick where this all went wrong seems like a mammoth task, and something that will no doubt feature in an Amazon Prime documentary at some point. Whether by that stage we’re talking about a highly unusual 48 hours, or the start of something bigger, it’s not yet clear.

In the meantime, there are some key learnings that can be taken. First off, while this feels like a misreading of the market on an epic, grand, maybe never-before-seen-in-sport, scale, I’m not of the view that this is ‘the clubs’ not understanding their own fans.

While the mainstream sports media and fans, probably rightfully so, will not care for the distinction I’m making here, for the purposes of unravelling what has happened there has to be a clear delineation between the ‘owners’ and the ‘clubs’.

Each of the clubs in question have got fantastic insight departments, with an in depth understanding of their fan bases. Based on what we already knew at Ear to the Ground about the audiences this did not land with ( 80% of all football fans across Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia from our initial reaction study), there is not, in our opinion, a way of launching this version of the ESL, that would have worked.

The insight teams at those clubs would have known that as well. Which, alongside the internal memos to club staff from the owners following the ESL announcement, leads to a logical assumption that the owners had set up a working group, outside of the clubs, who did not have the level of fan understanding required to make the correct decisions.

The second lesson, and most glaring, was a potential misunderstanding of data. Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, now infamously stated that 16 to 24-year-old fans don’t want to watch football anymore. It is commonly used reference point when talking about the reduction in time spent watching full 90-minute matches by young fans globally. The declining numbers are true, although with increased paywalls in place, the reasons are complex.

It is also true that when young fans are asked whether they would like to watch the big teams play each other more often, they will, in a majority, say yes ( 3/4 in our study).

The reduction in time spent watching games, and a desire to watch the big teams playing more frequently, could provide some nice stats in a presentation deck confirming the need for the ESL. But unfortunately it stops short of asking what young fans actually, really care about, and what they would be willing to sacrifice to have more ‘big-teams’ go head-to-head.

It missed the fact that we know 16-24 year old football fans, in the most engaged football markets, want to align with athletes, brands and competitions that match up to their values and support the causes that they support. So when a competition removes core elements of what fans consider to make a tournament fair, then it has a big problem.

Interestingly, the negative reaction we saw from our network of 11,000 fans across the world was widespread, with it missing the mark in the US, China, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria and Indonesia, almost as much as in more traditional football markets in Western Europe ( 72% against the concept, versus 90% in traditional football markets). It not only failed with ‘legacy fans’, but with the less traditional fans the owners may have expected to sweep up.

Instead of tapping into what fans really cared about, this was clearly about money. Fans simply didn’t know how bad the financial picture was and why this was needed. It was a bolt from nowhere, that suddenly these billionaires, running billion-dollar clubs, were out of money, so everything about football had to change.

If some time had been spent listening to fans, it would have been apparent that while fans also want to save the game and secure its future, they didn’t know it needed saving from having no money. Our interviews tell us they thought it needed saving from too much money. Again, an inclination that the research or insight used, only went halfway to giving the intelligence needed.

The final point we’ve seen missed, and the reason this maybe never had a chance of working, was the almost unanimous disapproval, among all fan segments, for the individuals fronting the initiative. Of the key figureheads, none of them were seen as a positive ambassador for the game of football, and none of them seen as representative of what fans love about the game.

All in all, it’s a case study in making sure we don’t take all data at face value, and the power of spending time speaking and listening to core audiences. The additional layer of understanding that can be drawn from qualitative techniques would have proven immeasurably valuable in this instance.

Where should football go next? What’s clear from speaking to the fans directly, is there is a need for positive evolution in the game. This isn't a sign that fans want things to stay the same – it’s that they want them to get better. It feels like the worst thing that could come from this for fans is the game doesn’t improve and innovate in a positive way.

For the owners, a healthy reminder that the game, even the clubs, don’t really belong to you, so when making such wholesale changes to something that billions of people love so much, the time spent digging beyond topline data, and into the why, is imperative.

Owen Laverty is director of fan intelligence at Ear to the Ground.

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