Back in the late eighties and nineties, Sunderland's commercial business ventures amounted to nothing more than a small number of cramped corporate boxes and a range of players cars emblazoned by sponsors names, with the vehicles usually supplied by the garage situated about twenty metres from Roker Park.
For a time our shirts featured the name of the famous VAUX brewery; here was rich local heritage, a local institution, and a major employer in Sunderland since the early 19th century. Here was a real local partnership, a representation of working class values - the shirt deal lasted nearly fifteen years. The next major deal, another local provider called Reg Vardy, lasted eight years.
I mentioned the word values - when I was growing up, Sunderland's values were centred on being a family club. As a youngster - even as a teenager - I didn’t have a clue what this actually meant, but what was important is that the club communicated the narrative back to me and every other supporter. I felt part of a family, part of a movement and a vital part of the club. I got close to the players before games; they stopped and chatted to fans with not a set of headphones in sight.
Roker Park was my cathedral. I would go to worship my heroes, Marco Gabbadini and Kieron Brady mainly. I talk to my dad about the club's values - he’s in his early 70’s now and with wisdom on his side, and he believes the club no longer has values and no longer is a ‘family club’.
Lets look at the facts - the club, and football generally, had to modernise. The inception of the Premier League changed football in the UK forever - the move away from my cathedral was inevitable for the club to survive. Bob Murray, for all of his faults, made this happen.
We struggle today with a billionaire owner; back then the struggle was real. Murray’s legacy is mixed, of course - his stubbornness not to invest, not to sell the club at the right time - but in a business sense he looked after the club and he stuck to our values.
The move from Roker Park to The Stadium of Light was never going to be easy, but the club did terrifically well with managing the transition. The success on the field helped to foster a new culture for fans, although I still miss the days of standing on a milk crate in the Fulwell End just so I could see the game. I tell my five year old that now - he laughs and thinks I’m crazy.
The values of the club, the experience of Roker Park and the authenticity of the Roker Roar were always going to be missed. In truth, the immediate success of Peter Reid in the mid to late nineties meant values weren’t as important. The club was riding a crest of a wave - 48000 sell outs and a successful team meant that for a brief period we had two very successful Premier League campaigns and won the first division with a record points total. I still got close to the players, only now I was old enough to drink in the same pubs as them in Seaham on Sunday afternoons. The stories you hear about Gray, Summerbee, Rae, Butler, Quinn et al are true - they were having as much fun as the fans.
When Peter Reid left Sunderland, closely followed by his dream team, modern football moved on further.
We have been in the top flight now for nearly ten years, which is a success in its own right. However, whilst our status has changed for the better since the nineties, other things have changed for the worse. My dad is right; the club has lost its values. Constant struggles have brought about a poisonous divide between the club and its fan base.
Why? Let’s look at it from business point of view.
The fans are stakeholders - investors if you like. The club no longer cater for fans - they TRY to cater for customers.
Lesson 1 - the clubs is treating fans with contempt. Despite 5 years of utter struggle, still 40000 fans go back every week, still they sell out away games. The club know this, so the club has decided it doesn’t need to make the effort, doesn’t need to invest. Its called marketing myopia - you focus on anything but your fans/customers as you know they’ll keep coming. Eventually, you no longer understand their wants, needs and demands.
Lesson 2 – Football clubs have to be entrepreneurial. At the heart of entrepreneurship is the ideology of ‘adding something of value’ – Financial fair play means the club has to increase revenues. The more the club earns, the more they can spend on player wages and on better players. As a season ticket holder, I don’t remember the last time I got some added value. When was the last time that my match day experience improved? Truth is, I receive a letter from the club asking me to renew my season ticket each year, and when I do renew I don’t even get a thank you or a small token of gratitude. I don’t even get a shiny new season card in recognition that I have signed up for another season of woe.
The key message from the last three years has been ‘don’t worry, at least we aren’t going to charge you more for this s**te….’
I pay £45 for my boy’s replica shirts now. I don’t even get the full product - the sponsors name isn’t allowed as it’s not ethical.
This is a club which used to be sponsored by local institutions - that said, VAUX's sponsorship would be questioned in today's PC culture. Since 2007, the club shirt has featured 5 different brands, three have been gambling firms, two raising awareness of causes in Africa. Gambling firms? Does the club have no understanding of the social impacts of gambling in deprived areas, how gambling companies target vulnerable people with little income – how these companies are targeting football’s most vulnerable fans?
Lesson 3 – Other sources of value. Corporate entrepreneurship is often just misunderstood as ‘lets make more money, let’s be rich’. That’s great if you can, but in truth entrepreneurial practice runs across an organisation and creates a form of social capital. Here, all stakeholders are on board, a clear vision, a clear set of values. In this ideal stakeholders are involved - they are consulted and contribute to making decisions. There are open, fluid communications - there’s even an acceptance of risk and failure.
Without a vision this isn’t possible. Sunderland is muddled football club - it has spent the last 10 years in a state of flux, a constant churn created by failure. Leadership is also at the core; Quinny had a bloody good go at this, since then, leadership has been non-existent.
Lesson 4 – Communication. In a recent press conference David Moyes justified the player’s trip to New York, stating the Christmas party was cancelled in recognition of poor performances on the pitch - so what’s changed since Christmas? We are still bottom.
In truth I don’t generally have issues with footballers sewing the fruits of their labour. Would anyone baulk at an all expenses trip to New York? The problem here is how the club, especially in relation to previous happenings at the club, communicated it. Moyes defended the trip, saying the timing was unfortunate considering the announcement of redundancies. I mean, seriously, aren’t senior figures within the club talking to one another? Haven’t they a plan? Is the club really been run as its perceived? Another PR disaster.
We now live in a world where football clubs confuse ‘engagement’ as a flurry of email and social media campaigns, but in truth football clubs are struggling to understand what social media marketing is all about. The #hashtags telling me to #keepthefaith and that #unityisstrength is nothing more than meaningless trash talk dreamed up in a quick Monday morning meeting. It has no meaning, it isn’t born from values, it doesn’t resonate with the fans, it’s disrespectable; it’s the club showing further contempt.
Our club no longer has values. The motto on the club badge says "CONSECTATIO EXCELLENTIAE" – translated from Latin as “in pursuit of excellence”.
I couldn’t help but smile. If this is the club’s pursuit of excellence, I’d rather they change track and head back to Roker Park, bring back Thomas Hauser for half time knee slide competitions, grab a shirt sponsorship with a local company and give out a milk crate to every young fan - lets face it, they get nothing now. But they are fans, they’ll be back, time after time.
Is there an alternative? Of course there is, but the club needs to be committed to values - they need to live and breathe through those values. Show some leadership, some entrepreneurial mind-set, some consultation, communication and empathy with fans.
The management away from pitch cannot have a direct influence of results on the pitch, in which case they absolutely must focus one hundred percent of their efforts on improving the fan experience. That way we will feel like fans, and not simply unhappy customers that are being treated with contempt.