If the thunderous announcement last Monday of the merger of the Racing 92 and Stade Français rugby clubs, by their presidents, took by surprise all their stakeholders, its abandonment in the utmost discretion, less than a week later, will not have surprised anyone.
Indeed, the initial communication mistake, committed by an excess of precipitation, immediately condemned the project.
As the owners of their clubs, in which they have invested a large part of their personal wealth, the two presidents believed that they could dispose of it freely, as they had done a few years ago with their respective companies.
In doing so, they forgot that a sports club, especially of high level, is not a company like any other, even at the time of professionalism and king marketing. A club is a story, made up of rivalries with other clubs, local roots, supporters but also players and employees, competing clubs, a Federation, and media looking for “good” topics…
When the icon of French rugby, former Captain of the national team Pascal Papé, calls for a strike by his Stade Français teammates, and the Mayor of Paris, an historical support of the Club, expresses her concerns, it becomes soon enough obvious that the project will not thrive. And very quickly the whole environment mobilises itself and lobbies. With undeniable efficiency.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE TO AVOID SUCH AN IMPASSE ?
Preparing the ground – if one can say it with respect to a ball sport – and choosing the right time.
The more sensitive a project is, the more likely it is to provoke reactions and resistances, the less stakeholders should be taken by surprise. One must “instil” gradually the idea that the situation cannot remain as it is. And that, failing to find a solution that is indeed difficult but offers a certain number of advantages – in this case endowing the capital region with a club capable of competing with the best in the long term –, the club may purely and simply disappear.
This implies a pedagogical effort towards all stakeholders over time, stepwise, and with an adaptation of the messages and vectors to each of them. If the Stade Français had a turbulent history and had already been close to liquidation, who was aware that, after leading a brilliant turnaround, its new owner was facing new difficulties and about to throw in the towel?
THE SECOND GOLDEN RULE IS TO CAREFULLY CHOOSE THE TIME OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
As regards the merger of two clubs, the period cannot be favourable until the championship is over. All the other clubs could fear that a loss of motivation of Stade Français players, not to mention the consequences of a possible strike, would disrupt the end of the competition. And especially, those who have already played their return match against the Stade Français could wonder if the teams that still have to face it would not benefit from a “preferential” treatment from an opposition no longer having a stake or future. With, at the end of the day, distortions both for the qualification for final stages and the relegation of the last ones.
Failing to comply with two of the golden rules of communication on sensitive projects, the two presidents had to retreat during the weekend. Their project thus joined the well-supplied list of stillborn merger projects, the latest of which was Kraft-Heinz with Unilever in February. Cold comfort, their project will have held 6 days against 2 for that of the two multinationals!