Research Knowledge

The Cognitive Biases That Doomed The European Super League Plan

Posted on Wednesday 5 May 2021

ICG’s Simon Riley uses cognitive bias theory to identify the “what just happened?” in the recent hard-to-miss launch and un-launch of the ESL. He writes: “The birth and death of the European Super League plan has many of us scratching our heads. 

The last few days have been a whirlwind, but now it’s clear the grand plan of the owners of the 12 breakaway clubs has failed, and it happened within 48 hours of its announcement. I won’t get into the football side of this in one blog post. Instead, I want to reflect on it as a business decision-making failure. How could such experienced and financially astute people make such a howling error of business judgment?

It’s good sometimes to look at the spectacular errors that apparently intelligent people make through the lens of “cognitive biases”. All humans are prone to these, let alone the kind of bullish character that gets to own or run our biggest football clubs. It does appear that several common mind-traps that we all fall into snared them and doomed their plan to failure. (Their failure to do or listen to any proper consumer insight work – which is glaring – needs a whole other blog post). 

So here goes – the European Super League as a failure to take account of cognitive biases – a starter for 10 (with thanks to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias for the longer list and definitions):

  • Anchoring bias: “the tendency to rely too heavily, or anchor, on one trait or piece of information when making decisions”. Here, the piece of information was the agreement between the 12 clubs themselves. I suspect so much time and energy went into that wrangling, they mistook achieving an agreement between themselves with the actual task of making it a success. There was no reality check.
  • Hyperbolic Discounting: “the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs … Also known as current moment bias … a study showed that when making food choices for the coming week, 74% of participants chose fruit, whereas when the food choice was for the current day, 70% chose chocolate.” Here, again, the owners over-considered the inter-club negotiations, and under-considered the parts of the plan that were further away (e.g. how to sell the finished package).
  • Pro-Innovation Bias: “the tendency to have an excessive optimism towards an invention or innovation’s usefulness throughout society, while often failing to identify its limitations and weaknesses.” Big time – anyone doing reality checks with the public on great and not so great business ideas, as I do, will attest to this. Some creators just can’t see their own ideas through others’ eyes. Keeps me in work though.
  • Surrogation: “losing sight of the strategic construct that a measure is intended to represent, and subsequently acting as though the measure is the construct of interest.” For ‘a measure’, think ‘the money’.
  • Empathy Gap: “the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others.” Obviously.
  • Illusion of Control: “the tendency to overestimate one’s degree of influence over other external events.” – oh, in spades, in absolute spades.

Honourable mentions go to:

  • Confirmation Bias – “the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” Always.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect – “the tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability and the tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability.” We’re definitely looking at unskilled individuals here in terms of emotional understanding of football culture.
  • Normalcy Bias – “the refusal to plan for, or react to, a disaster which has never happened before”. They had never seen fans, players and coaches rebelling en masse so did not take it seriously as something to plan for.
  • Optimism Bias – “the tendency to be over-optimistic, underestimating greatly the probability of undesirable outcomes and overestimating favorable and pleasing outcomes.” Nuff said. 

(I bought a wall poster with an infographic of cognitive biases on them a while back, but in an example of Optimism Bias, it turns out I don’t have a wall space big enough to actually put it up on.)

The thing is to be aware. The club owners were all about the wheeling and dealing, but forgot about what the thing they were wheeling and dealing over actually was.

There is an antidote: innovation research. Talk to the people you are hoping to bring along with you, and try to understand how they think. Challenge your own hypotheses, do a reality check. As the European Super League debacle shows, the cost of *not* doing it is very high indeed.” 

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