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Who is Football For?

The European Super League – purposeful business 1, shareholders-in-charge 0

The ESL Football Club owners are not bad people. They are like many leaders, out of touch with the people their organisations serve. It’s natural – they are a product of their surroundings. But it’s not inevitable, and we show how they could bridge the cultural divide to lead far more effectively from here.

The chaotic rise and fall of the ESL has been everywhere – front pages, sports pages, politics, popular culture and it’s made a splash in business sections too. But beyond the leap from eye-watering riches to buttock-clenching liabilities and legal bills there’s more going on. This is a message to everyone in business.

We believe the purpose of business is to serve customers, in ways that are sustainable for the business and good for all of the people involved. This is not what is commonly accepted, serving shareholders first ahead of the interests of all of the others.

The ESL episode is a parable that shows why organisations are for the people who follow their teams first, their ‘customers’, and not for their owners.

We describe football fans as customers but there are not like customers in the conventional sense. They certainly don’t think of themselves as customers and many would be insulted by the idea. They don’t switch brands when a better offer comes along, and the kind of emotional return they get from their often massive investment of time, care and identity, as well as money, is measured in tension, upset, frustration and occasional bursts of joy.

The most committed of a football club’s fans are deeply invested, far more even than an Apple aficionado or a Nando’s nut. They are the real owners of the spirit of a team. It’s made clear when a club goes into administration. When its future is in serious doubt players and management can move elsewhere, the stadium can be redeveloped, the owner’s got to get out of a financial mess but they too have a detachment and are easily replaced. It’s the fans and only the fans who can’t move on. They are the constant and the club is there for them. They are not ‘customers’ but they are the people the club serves and who in return give the club its energy and its appeal which all the other groups benefit from.

Our work on The Customer Copernicus led to two ways of understanding business and what businesses are for.

One we describe as inside-out, self-centred and financial. Maximise shareholder value. Make the business bigger and better. Make the owners and leaders wealthy. Manage everything else to achieve these ends.

The other is outside-in, starting with people, and in particular the people the organisation is there to serve – customers and the communities they’re part of. They are the only group associated with a business who put money in with no expectation of getting it back out again – they do it to get something they value in return. When a business provides that value well, they make plenty of money too, and everyone else involved – colleagues, suppliers, advisors, owners – shares the benefit.

In football these two ways of seeing the world have become starkly delineated.

At the top, TV deals got bigger, sponsorships more valuable, stadiums plusher and players wealthier. The big football clubs have attracted investors from afar, seeing a financial return or a reputational benefit that makes business interests elsewhere flow more easily. Fans have been wary but bought in on the basis that their funding leads to better players, a team that wins more and, in the short term, all is well. To get wealthier owners more able to invest means involving people from afar, people more distant from the European game – from the US, the Middle East, Russia, China. They also tend to have distant relationships with their club, a league apart from the emotions of the fans.

These very different backgrounds and remote relationships are at the root of the ESL debacle.

As we discovered in writing the book, the quality that determines whether an organisation is inside-out or outside-in, for money or for the people it serves, are the shared beliefs held by those involved about what success is and how it’s achieved. These are unspoken group assumptions, deeply held but invisible, and as social animals we are good at sensing them and trying to fit in.

The natural belief system in any organisation is to be most concerned about the people around you. It means it’s natural to look at the world from the inside out. If you own a big football club and you grew up in the US or the Middle East, you come with the beliefs of those who were around you then, and if you put in place managers to run things, they’re going to take their cue from you.

To see and believe in the way others see the world takes effort and a degree of selflessness rarely found in oligarchs or highly successful US businessmen. To really connect with another belief system you need to immerse yourself in it. In this situation that means watching matches on the terraces, getting to know supporters in the pub afterwards, talking to them in-between games, not by viewing from the Directors Lounge or on TV in another country and then going back to the rest of their very different lives until the next game. This distance between the worldview and assumptions of the owners and the worlds of supporters explains the rift.

If you grew up in Miami then you know for sure that leagues can have no relegation and that clubs can move cities when franchises are sold. It’s part of your cultural hinterland. If you grew up in Manchester then you know that part of the enjoyment of current success comes from time spent by both Manchester clubs in lower divisions. Although supporters want their teams to succeed, it’s the possibility and the past experience of failure that makes success so sweet.

To a US owner, for example, this might all seem perverse. Creating a Super League that has no relegation for your side is clearly good business, but surely you would think it logical that the team’s supporters would be delighted too? One less thing to worry about, surely?

If they had gone through the inconvenience of really understanding the people the club is there for, they would have tuned in to the way people feel about such things and foreseen the huge upset they caused. They united people across the whole world of football against them, not just other fans or each club’s own supporters. As one prominent and genuine Manchester United supporter, Sir Paul Marshall, put it in The Guardian on 24 April in writing about the club’s owners, the Glazer family, the ESL “is the culmination of your 16 years’ of ownership of the club and is perhaps the strongest example of how you seem to have been persistently out of touch with the club, spirit, indeed very purpose of Manchester United.”

To rebuild bridges our learning suggests that the leaders of the big clubs might benefit from doing at least three unconventional-sounding things:

  1. Immerse themselves in the worlds of their team’s supporters so they connect viscerally and start to empathise with why the club matters so much to them.

  2. Create ways for this connection to be continual, and emotive. For example, fan representation at the top level of the club, but done in a way that will achieve the outcome, so not inviting supporters to sit around a boardroom table but speaking to them in places they feel comfortable.

  3. Create a flow of actions that demonstrate that the purpose of the club starts with the supporters. We call them Moments of Belief because only making intentions concrete and seeing a continual flow of them is enough for people to believe that something usually unheard-of is now the way things are done around the place. For example, making prices of tickets more accessible to a full range of supporters, or taking part in discussions with fans on their territory, on podcasts or fanzines.

In conclusion then our view is more moderate than many. What the clubs behind the ESL did was dramatically mis-judged and woefully executed. But strange though it sounds to write it down, we think it’s not because the football club owners had bad intent or are evil people.

They are a product of their surroundings and they didn’t do enough to connect them in a human, emotional way to the people their clubs are for. In fact they probably didn’t think of fans in that way. But even that was a result of the same disconnect, of not understanding the culture they’d bought into. They assumed they were in charge and that a superficially better set-up with no relegation would be applauded, at least by their own. They were wrong. But the example could help not just the world of football see the need to be truly customer-led, even if those words are not the ones to use in this instance.

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