We need to talk about... iFollow.
It was announced in July that Sunderland AFC had made the decision not to take part in the new EFL subscription service, along with league titans Aston Villa, Leeds United and Queens Park Rangers.
Various reasons were given for this decision: a supposed lack of quality in the service and high expense (running at £110 for a full season) being the key sticking points. We were told there was no audio commentary, only one camera and that, in general, it was going to be a rip-off. So it was with no small amount of scepticism that, sitting in gay Paris yesterday on business, I decided to purchase a day pass and watch the match through Norwich City's iFollow service.
Well. It saddens me to report that once again Sunderland AFC have missed a trick, but it saddens me even more to know that the fans are the one's that lose out. Let's look at the details briefly.
According to research conducted by the EFL up to 55% of fans of teams below the Premier League are residents of the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada – we're talking hundreds of thousands of fans here. From Roker Report's own standpoint this data is accurate; we have readers and listeners across all continents and in no small measure. It stands to reason that any club worth its salt would strive to make the matchday experience as convenient as possible for such a large portion of their fans, particularly when results on the pitch have been the direct result of decisions in the boardroom, and they are therefore complicit in the huge loss of Premier League TV rights, thereby striking a massive blow to expatriated Sunderland fans literally the world over. “Weareroundtheworld”? Yeah, about that...
So what's it like? One camera, no commentary... is that such a terrible thing? I'm not sure about you but when I go to the match I'm not bristling with multiple cameras to catch instant replays and show me goals at twelve different angles, nor do I have Nick Barnes nonchalantly discussing the football, directly into my ear. That's right – watching the match on iFollow abroad is much like watching the match in person, only you don't need a passport, boarding pass, hotel and match ticket. I watched the full 90 minutes from a Paris hotel room and enjoyed it thoroughly, moreover I was happy to pay the fiver it cost for the day pass and came away thinking I would be completely satisfied paying the £110 annual subscription to watch my beloved club. (Side note – I would spend less money securing that subscription and travelling to Paris each week to watch the game than I would travelling from my home to the Stadium of Light. Fact.)
One of the more interesting points to consider here is the degree of control apparently afforded the club when using the ifollow service. For example, that single camera excuse given above? Well, according to EFL Marketing Director Drew Barrand, a single camera is the minimum. Each club can choose to enhance the experience with additional equipment and audio commentary, if they so desire. They also have the right to broadcast pre-season matches.
The details of remuneration for clubs that partake in iFollow aren't publicly available so it's impossible to judge their decision based on merit of money saved versus money spent, but I would say it's reasonable to assume there wasn't that much money in it for the club OR they felt they'd benefit more by monetising the services they already offer, plus that little extra. Because in its place the club have instead chosen to invest a significant amount of time and money in placing high-quality camera equipment around the Stadium of Light, and as part of the now-payable subscription on the club's website for audio commentary, they also provide full match replays, twenty four hours after the live game takes place.
It should be noted that the club had very little choice when it came to charging 45 quid a year for the “premium” web content – EFL rules state that that's the minimum a club can charge for subscription services and they should be commended for their efforts to keep such things affordable, there's no denying that. I won't sit here and tell you they're trying to rip you off, because they aren't. They do good work when it comes to keeping support affordable and I'll not hear otherwise.
Affordable it may be, but easy it is not. Sometimes it can be very difficult to believe that the powers that be at Sunderland are on your side, as a fan.
The obvious reality here is that Sunderland AFC were given a choice. As part of EFL ruling they can choose to broadcast their games live if they so please, but the costs incurred for doing so are exponential; in order to broadcast they require a satellite transmitter (the bi-weekly hiring of a big, fuck off dish on the back of a van) and a full complement of specialists to ensure the broadcast runs smoothly. Considering we're struggling to pay the milkman of a morning, it's easy to see why they might have been hesitant to do something so progressively awesome but at great expense.
Ultimately the decision was theirs to make. They were given options and chose to act conservatively, where they should have acted in the best interests of their fans at cost to themselves. It's an unenviable position to be in, making decisions of marketing for a club like ours, but a role that needs to be efficiently carried out nonetheless. Each and every decision made impacts the enjoyment of fans – the most important factor for any club. Indeed that is perhaps the most troubling factor in all of this, as it so often is; a complete lack of fan engagement on the subject.
Before making the decision to protect themselves it's reasonable to suggest that Sunderland AFC could have polled their fans, asked for feedback and then made an informed decision based on the desires of the people that keep the club afloat.
The average person on the street could be forgiven for being a non-football person, for believing that fans in exile abroad aren't part of the equation when it comes to counting club fans, but those at club level shouldn't be afforded that luxury. The reality is that every single person that wants to watch Sunderland play their football is the reason Sunderland even play football. If you ignore expats and exiles, not only do you shit on half your fan base, you deny the benefits of marketing and merchandise that targets them, that funds the club coffers. It's beyond ignorance; it's gross negligence, a dereliction of the duty given to those that are meant to ensure Sunderland fans have a good time, wherever they are.
Who knows? Maybe it was an act of tremendous foresight - a sign of their intentions to blitz the league and leave such things behind?
Hah! Of course not, don’t be foolish.
At the end of the day, blame is useless to us going forward. The fact remains that the fans should have been consulted, and the only way for this club to progress and reconnect is to demonstrate trust in their own supporters, by relying on fans to decide what they want for themselves.