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What led to the PR debacle around Messi no-show for Inter Miami friendly?

What led to the PR debacle around Messi no-show for Inter Miami friendly?

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Thousands of Lionel Messi fans have expressed anger and asked for refund after they paid HK$4,880 to watch the Argentina football star stay rooted at the bench throughout the friendly match between Inter Miami and the Hong Kong team on Sunday.  

David Beckham, the president and co-owner of Inter Miami, was roundly booed as he tried to thank the 40,000-strong crowd for their 'incredible support' following Miami's 4-1 win over a Hong Kong XI. 

At the post-match media briefing, Miami’s coach Gerardo Martino apologised and asked for citizens’ understanding, citing the huge risk of fielding Messi and another player Luis Suárez. Messi suffers from inflammation in the adductor.  

In fact, the event has been awarded "M" Mark status, as well as a matching grant of HK$15m and a grant for the venue of HK$1m by The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC). The Hong Kong government expressed its disappointment that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request.

The authorities will require the organiser to take responsibility, including a reduction of the amount of funding as a result of Messi not being able to play in the match. “The way that the organiser and Inter Miami CF handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who showed strong support for Messi, especially those visitors who came all the way here for the match,” it said in an official statement on Sunday. 

Hong Kong tourism chief Kevin Yeung said during a press briefing on Monday, that one of the key terms of the funding agreement was for Messi to take part in the match for at least 45 minutes subject to fitness and safety considerations. Before the match began, Yeung said Tatler reaffirmed Messi would take part in the second half of the game, however he didn't show up on the pitch, the government followed up with Tatler and requested it to liaise with Miami.

The authorities were then informed by Tatler that Messi could not play due to injury. "We reiterated for Messi to play for the last 10 minutes of the match, it did not work out. We immediately requested Tatler to explore other remedies, such as having Messi in the field to interact with fans or receive the trophy. This did not work out. "

Meanwhile, Tatler XFEST Hong Kong, the organiser of the event, expressed its extreme disappointment regarding the incident. “We, alongside all football fans who attended that match, had been eagerly anticipating Messi’s and Suárez’s participation and share in the disappointment felt by everyone watching,” it said in an official statement on Instagram.  

“Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suárez prior to kick-off. Messi and Suárez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment,” the statement reads. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to Tatler HK for a statement. 

Social sentiments 

However, Tatler’s attempt to explain the situation did not seem to calm the anger of fans. A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE saw the post garner over 3,500 likes and over 1,000 comments, with some saying that it's better for the organisers to outline the next step and propose a plan for compensating the fans, while some said they felt "deceived" by this huge "fraud". 

Tatler has also seen a drop in its brand sentiments. Media intelligence firm CARMA saw a total of 15,000 mentions regarding Tatler HK over the past weekend. Prior to the game, Tatler enjoyed a 27.8% positive sentiment and just 2% negative sentiment. However, it currently stands at 16.5% positive and 20% negative.  

“Many were extremely disappointed as Messi wasn't even willing to interact with fans. Many believed the incident not only impacted Messi's reputation among fans in Hong Kong but also Hong Kong's reputation, as the government has ‘lost face’ in such a major and sought-after event,” said CARMA’s HK GM Charles Cheung.  

How can organisers better manage audience expectations? 

The disappointment of the Hong Kong fans is understandable, especially considering the excitement and anticipation built up around Lionel Messi's return to Hong Kong. All their hopes were dashed due to Messi's injury. 

One disappointing aspect of the event and outcome was the lack of respect shown to Hong Kong fans and ticket holders, said Judd Christie, managing director, Uniplan Hong Kong.

“I think many young diehard fans would have been delighted to just hear from their hero by way of a heartfelt apology, or indeed some show of sincere appreciation, from all reports this did not happen to the satisfaction of fans and ticket holders," he added.

On the other hand, it was reportedly made clear to participants when they purchased tickets that there would be no refund issued if Messi didn't play.

Unlike entertainers such as Celine Dion or Whitney Houston, for team sports, audiences are paying to watch a team play, not a specific person, said Kevin Kan, chief experience officer, Break Out Consulting Asia. "When a sportsperson is injured, they are substituted, and the match continues. But when an entertainer falls ill, you cannot substitute the talent that you paid to see."

A lesson learned here for event organisers like Tatler is that future advertising should focus on the teams playing rather than one individual player, according to Kan. “Even when featuring stars of the team, it should not imply any guarantee of playing in the event. To manage fans and audience expectations, event organisers should clearly highlight the risks of player injury.” 

Whether the organisers should refund the audience depends on the terms and conditions of the ticket sales and the contractual obligations of the event, said David Ko, managing director, RFI Asia. If Messi's appearance was guaranteed in terms of ticket sales, then the audience may have a right to some form of compensation. 

“However, if the terms indicated that player participation was subject to change without notice, it might be more challenging to justify refunds on a legal basis,” he said. 

On the PR front, Celine Cheung, account director, RSVP Communications believed clear communication between organisers and participants is also crucial. 

“Given that the Inter Miami X HK team match is an international sports event, there should be an official spokesperson or representative of the event to communicate closely with the press and audiences. The organisers should also amplify in promotional materials that there would be a chance for Messi to sit out the game.” 

(Photo courtesy: Facebook page @ 久利生 財經拓撲)

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