Sunderland Take Loyal Support For Granted

Michael Regan

As ex Sunderland season ticket holders receive free tickets for the Liverpool match, those who have renewed find their loyalty is taken for granted.

A one time or another in our lives there's a good chance we've elected to take our business from one company to another. It's quite natural to look for the deal that best suits us, while businesses will go out of their way to lure new customers in or tempt old ones back. One company who takes our custom for granted though, is our football club.

I mention custom as that is the way we are increasingly being treated by Sunderland AFC, not that the situation is unique to us or our club but it is something that has reared its head again recently and is worth consideration.

Like many other supporters I elected to renew my season ticket this summer, whilst others either chose not to or felt they could no longer justify or even afford the expense. These are tough economic times and I have absolutely no issue with people deciding to prioritise the use of their hard earned money on other things.

With that in mind, it could be argued that the club's decision to offer ex season ticket holders the opportunity to attend the Liverpool game for free is a decent reward for their loyalty as well as an incentive to try and win them back. On the other hand - and this is the view I subscribe to - the probability that a free ticket will tempt supporters into repurchasing their season ticket is slim at best, while it also serves to annoy those who have renewed for yet another term of potential misery.

For some, it is not a choice at all, and Sunderland simply come first in their lives. This is the devotion that comes with being a supporter of an at best mid-ranking Premier League club located in an area where football is an obsession. At times, it feels like this loyalty is tested to its limit, not only by the years of mediocrity - or worse in the not too distant past - but by the club's increasingly complacent treatment of those who continue to buy their season ticket, while spending their time trying to win over lost supporters or bring new ones through the door.

Unlike a bank or a network television provider, most of us didn't pick Sunderland by choice and go for our love of the club and some intangible sense of belonging. Whilst the club may currently be in the hands of an American billionaire, it is the supporters who were here before arrived and will remain long after he is gone.

Why then does it feel like our commitment is treated with complacency at best, contempt at worst? While some fans will arrive at the Stadium of Light for free when Sunderland take on Liverpool, what will those who have already committed to paying for the match have to show for their loyalty; a few offers in a booklet and some discounted watered down beer in the stadium?

In fact, it would not surprise me at all if some of those being offered free tickets had opted not to renew because of this type of incentive in the first place and therein lies the irony at the heart of the matter. If we were customers, we'd not just stop going to games or at least committing to a full season of home games, we'd go elsewhere for a better "product", just as we do when we switch bank accounts. Supporters don't do that because of the affinity they have with their club and attempting to entice them back as if they were customers is an inherently bad move.

Sunderland and no doubt countless other clubs have created a dichotomy between their expectations of us as supporters and their treatment of us as customers. What they will find and probably have already found in some cases is that the more they handle us like customers, the greater the chances are that we will behave like them. A time may come where football becomes merely a product; call it that often enough and people will treat it that way.

I mention other clubs, but there are some who are at least trying to retain and reward their support by offering benefits to those who follow their team far and wide. Stoke City and Aston Villa have both offered free buses for their fans travelling to away games this season. Given that Sunderland have away support that is the envy of clubs across England that would represent a fantastic reward to our fans who travel the length and breadth of the county to get behind the team.

Perhaps that only benefits a relative minority of supporters, so what about including free entry to cup games with a season ticket? Evidently, there is an element of the luck of the draw with this incentive - Sunderland might find themselves playing away from home, though there is nothing to stop free tickets for away games being dished out - but the early rounds of both League and FA Cups often draw meagre crowds, so why not offer the ultimate discount to those signing up for a season of league games?

Some supporters travel long distances to come back to Sunderland for matches, so that might not benefit those who cannot attend midweek League Cup games. Again, there are other options, such as the offer of something along the lines of a free replica shirt. Would it really hurt the revenue of the club that much to provide season ticket holders with what is an already overpriced garment that many choose not to buy anyway?

Currently season ticket holders receive a free copy of the Legion of Light, but the match day programme is a far superior publication. I doubt anyone would miss the Legion but a free programme would certainly not go amiss on match day.

Ultimately, the club employ any number of people to come up with ideas both better than mine and the ones they are currently serving up. A creative, fresh approach is needed, which can satisfy those who have invested in season tickets, while also working to attract more people to follow suit. Indeed, the two do not have to be distinct from one another. As it stands, they are, and the club stands to lose more than it gains as a result.

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