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The world of football was shaken up last month, after twelve top teams, including the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea, announced that they were founding the European Super League. In this new format, the top teams in Europe would play each other more often, in a setup similar to American sports competitions. The Super League was founded for a plethora of reasons, one of them being economic stability and more revenue for the participating teams – who also bring in the most revenue.

Within a couple of hours, the plan was met with a wave of criticism. For starters, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron disapproved of the Super League. FIFA and UEFA, two international governing bodies for football, threatened the clubs and players participating in the competition with bans for international competitions. A fair share of players also spoke out against the new format – some of them even mentioned that they were not informed about the club’s decision to join the Super League at all. Online, the overall sentiment was negative, as fans expressed their disappointment in the founding clubs on social media. Within two days, nine founding teams had dropped out of the Super League, leaving three clubs behind as the only supporters of the plan.

Faced with so much criticism from so many different parties, I think it is fair to say that the teams faced reputational threats, meaning that crisis communications were necessary. A theory that academics frequently bring up when discussing crisis communications is Timothy Coombs’ Situtational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). Using this theory, I gathered some insights in how the football teams approached this situation.

SCCT was developed in the 2000s and is one of the most well-known evidence-based theories for crisis communications; it provides a framework that helps crisis managers understand how they can protect their organizational reputation by identifying key elements of the crisis situation and how they influence the reputations held by stakeholders. Coombs defines reputation as “an aggregate evaluation made by stakeholders about how well an organization is meeting stakeholder expectations based on its past behaviors”. A crisis poses a significant threat to a reputation, as it gives stakeholders a reason to think badly about an organization. Having a good reputation creates a buffer, which Coombs describes as ‘reputational capital’, meaning that the more reputational capital an organization has to spend, the more damage it is able to handle.

Coombs argues that crisis managers should start by understanding the crisis situation before gauging the reputational threat. It is important to judge the extent to which the organization is responsible for the crisis. Reputation is less at risk when the organization is the victim than when the organization placed other people at risk. In this case, the board of the clubs made a big decision without informing or consulting their staff, players, or fans, which SCCT would characterize as ‘organizational misdeed with no injuries’.

After the reputational threat is established, crisis managers should focus on crisis response strategies, according to Coombs. He identifies three types of strategies that are used: deny, diminish, and rebuild. The former focuses on removing the connection between the organization and the crisis, which can best be applied to situations where rumors are shaping the trajectory of it. A ‘diminish crisis response’ entails that the crisis manager will argue that the crisis is not as bad as it seems and that the organization is in control; when properly executed, this response is appropriate when the crisis was caused by an accident. Lastly, the rebuild strategy focuses on improving the organization’s reputation by means of offering compensation to stakeholders, apologizing for its actions and expressing their concern for victims. Coombs argues that the rebuild strategy is suited for intentional or accidental crises that present a severe reputational threat, making it the most appropriate response for the Super League crisis.

As the crisis unfolded, we saw that the majority of the teams applied the rebuild strategy. Chelsea, the first team to pull out of the Super League, applied the rebuilding strategy by apologizing to their fans on social media and admitted that they made a mistake. An important event that triggered and justified this specific response was that Chelsea fans protested outside of their stadium, which significantly increased the reputational threat. In swift succession, eight other teams opted out of the Super League, the majority offering similar apologies.

The three teams remaining committed to the Super League each took a different approach. Italian champion Juventus released a short statement in which it did not address the crisis, but simply argued that the club was still in favor of the concept and its premises. FC Barcelona released a more extensive statement, in which the club stood by the concept of the Super League, asking the fans and the public to be patient. Although they expressed it in different ways, I think the two statements boil down to the same crisis response strategy: diminishing the crisis by justifying their actions and focusing on wanting the best for the organization.

Real Madrid itself did not release a statement. Instead, Florentino Perez, Real Madrid chairman and Super League president, commented on the commotion around the Super League in multiple interviews. Perez’s response can be identified as denying the crisis, blaming the outside world for creating misunderstandings around the plan and blaming the other founders for giving in to the public pressure. Perez’s double role plays an important role here; it would not have made sense for him to criticize the Super League, however, since he is the chairman of Real Madrid, his comments could have damaged the club’s reputation.

This led me to wonder: how do the actions of the owners or chairmen impact the reputation of the club itself? Is the reputation of the owner synonymous to that of the club? I would argue that because a club consists of so many different stakeholders (players, coaches, staff, management, fans), it is difficult for one group to ruin the reputation of the entire club. However, I do believe that the reputations of the owners and chairmen were damaged. A survey by El Mundo showed that 71% of the respondents thought that Perez’s response and role as the Super League chairman damaged his own reputation. Even though the clubs pulled out of the Super League early, Chelsea’s owner expressed that he was afraid his reputation was severely damaged by the crisis and Arsenal’s fans demanded the resignation of their owner.

By using SCCT I was able to shed more light on how the twelve football clubs responded to the Super League crisis. For some teams, the reputational threat was significantly increased by protests, which gave them a reason to apply a rebuilding strategy. Other teams decided to apply a diminishing strategy and tried to defend what they thought was best for the organization. Real Madrid’s chairman chose a denying strategy, although his role within the Super League board probably played a significant role. While it seems like no organizational reputations have been ruined, I am convinced the teams will be more mindful when announcing future initiatives. 

Written by Martijn van Dorp