Part 1: How did the Premier League, its clubs and sponsors respond to the coronavirus pandemic from a business perspective – through marketing, branding and sponsorship activations?

When the coronavirus became a global pandemic, the world stopped. Just like that. Everything. Nothing. At first, it was a novelty, yet paradoxically, a potentially lethal and, for many, frightening time. Then, lockdown became the ‘new normal’. As it approaches its hopeful conclusion, we’ve been able to reflect on the enormity of the situation that has had many in the football world asking ‘what happens next’?

When the initial shock of the Premier League’s hiatus had sunk in, the footballing media and Twittersphere found itself with the luxury of time to reflect on the past and ponder the future – which they did to no end. In the fast-paced world of global football – organisations – including their staff and fans – had no such luxury. Supporters were gutted, furious, and sad. For many, a game of football isn’t really just about the game, but the rituals associated with it. The pint with your ageing father before kick-off, the once in a while catch up with old school friends. It’s social and it’s a part of your life, just like fans are a part of the life of football.

Football also has a bottom line that must be met. It’s big business with big money sponsors, all of whom are weathering the same storm. How do clubs make it work? Who decides? For many clubs, their initial communications were about putting minds at ease. In a word, it was about fostering security.

Manchester United were one side who managed to make a lot of good decisions throughout the pandemic. One of them, earliest on, was the choice to assure staff that they’d be paid in full, despite the Government’s furlough scheme. Fans also had their minds put at ease. Season ticket renewal dates would be extended, with rebates or refunds available for current games that fans would miss. Though not a publicity stunt, the move still garnered a lot of recognition, generating over 200 articles in the media and setting an example.

On top of that, the club contributed £350 towards the travel costs of around 700 United fans on their away trip to LASK – a match belatedly decided to be played behind closed doors. In a world when routine had been disrupted and lives put on hold, these decisive actions performed quickly cannot be overlooked.

Unfortunately, communications weren’t as clear across the board in the Premier League, with Liverpool taking the controversial initial decision to put around 200 non-playing staff on furlough, putting them alongside Spurs, Newcastle, Norwich, and Bournemouth, who thought best to do the same. Claiming government aid despite being the world’s seventh richest football club sparked a fierce backlash online and from Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union, whose impassioned response detailed that their club’s decision could have long-lasting negative effects, if not to finance, then certainly to their values and reputation.

Only a few days later, the club made a U-turn, sensing that in a time when some clubs provided reasonable responses, theirs appeared not only kneejerk, but poorly thought-through, at odds with their image as a working-class club of the people.

Chief Executive Peter Moore wrote in an open letter to supporters, “We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week to announce that we intended to apply to the coronavirus retention scheme and furlough staff due to the suspension of the Premier League football calendar, and are truly sorry for that.” Only a few days later, Spurs followed suit.

What the supporter groups of Liverpool and Spurs feared the most wasn’t only the staff who may lose their jobs or not the football they’d miss – but the values and reputation of their clubs. Where better than to highlight what a club stands for than in its actions to help those who need it most? After all, stakeholders aren’t limited to match-day fans, but members of the community – where many of the clubs draw so many staff and support from. In an important reciprocal relationship, many clubs decided to thank those around them.

One of the biggest movements was to highlight the crucial work being done by NHS frontline workers – many of whom have families of their own and knew no more about the pandemic than the general population. United had a lightbulb moment when putting together ideas to highlight their respects. Building on the simple concept that the letters ‘NHS’ are required to spell Manchester, the club chose to shine the light on this, quite literally.

United illuminated the letters in sequence on their iconic stadium exterior, beside the word UNITED, with their ‘Holy Trinity’ statue looking onwards. What’s more, the club lit the ground up blue for the NHS – also the colour of their rivals – as a symbol of acknowledgment for the work that the frontline workers have undertaken.

(Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Alongside frontline workers, communities all around England that surround the Premier League’s clubs were hit particularly hard. At many clubs, these people were the earliest port-of-call for senior staff whose Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives were galvanised in the time of strain. In the city of Manchester, both United and City came together under the #acityunited banner, contributing a £100,000 joint donation to The Trussell Trust for use in 19 foodbanks across Greater Manchester. Many members of staff also chose to volunteer their time to help make the logistics possible, themselves working on the frontline in an effort to help those who needed it most.

Alongside clubs, brands and players have also acted as ambassadors, representing particular areas and communities – or in the case of Marcus Rashford, a cause close to their hearts. The young Wythenshawe footballer has been one of the real stars from the coronavirus fallout in football – and beyond. A recipient of school meals in his youth, Rashford asked the pertinent question: what happens to the kids who get free school meals if there is no school?

The pursuit of an answer turned him into the unlikeliest of activists, with Rashford opting to take a direct approach, seeking government accountability over his opinion of their shortcomings. The United attacker didn’t just put on a show – he did something that worked.

Drawing awareness to the issue, the player then challenged those who can make a difference to do just that. Rashford played a smart card in order to rouse a reaction. He wrote a long letter to Members of Parliament, who knew they had to respond. If their answer was indifference, the government would look callous. As soon as his statements gained momentum on social media, they became a rolling stone that didn’t so much as get a sniff of moss.

Cutting out the free school meal scheme was seen by the UK government as acceptable collateral damage leading into the lockdown period as schools were closed. Rashford used his vast and influential platform to push for a u-turn. Having already partnered with FareShare – a charity fighting hunger and food waste – Rashford felt that he and other similar beneficiaries weren’t sole guardians of this domain, but that the government should also step up and help those most vulnerable too.

In an impassioned plea posted on Twitter, he wrote, “This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

Rashford’s public proclamation was a bold move, yet one that shows the evolving role of a football player. There once was the opinion that ‘no player is bigger than the club’, and whilst that still holds ideologically, in practice, the statement has never felt more flimsy. Players are at once ambassadors of a club, and similarly brands in their own rights. It’s not that now they are bigger – it’s just a different dynamic altogether. That Rashford’s letter was headed by his own brand logo should speak volumes about a player’s new off-the-field role.

Part of being a player at an elite club means accepting the role that comes outside of kicking the ball. Due to the pervasiveness of social media in private lives, football players are also constantly under the microscope. Almost no other group in British society face as much scrutiny. During a global pandemic this was, oddly, still something that made headlines.

Young, famous and rich, footballers are the holy grail for tabloids – and, in the case of Matt Hancock, politicians too. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care’s comments on footballers led to a backlash as the figure turned the sportsmen into scapegoats for larger societal failings: a challenge of sorts where football rose and a government fell short.

The health secretary said,  “Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice… I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.” Singling out footballers rather than CEOs, hedge-fund managers, or any other high-paying/high-power job – especially considering the work that players like Rashford have been doing – was little more than thinly veiled classism.

Donating around £20 million to the NHS and vulnerable communities, the Premier League are propping up the failings of a Conservative government. It’s a grand gesture for football to help out, but one that shouldn’t be as necessary as it has been, let alone something singled-out by a member of the ruling party’s cabinet. An overwhelming sense of elitism permeated Hancock’s statement, and, in fact, a lot of the government’s actions related to their dealing with the virus. It’s no surprise that football and its surrounding communities have such a mutually interconnected relationship. In each other’s arms, they can find solace.