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Did Sunderland make a mistake opting out of the iFollow service? Have overseas fans missed out?

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This season saw the introduction of EFL broadcast platform iFollow, but our fair Sunderland opted out. Six months on - did they miss a trick? Was this another example of short-sighted cost-cutting, or shrewd business? Let’s take a look.

iFollow
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As most of you will be aware, actions have consequences. Our trip down to the Championship had a bundle of them, and just one of those was a blow to anyone that follows the lads from outside of the region. Whether you’re exiled or skint or working or with the kids or whatever, it’s fair to say a lot of Sunderland fans don’t get to the match as often as we’d like.

Is that a good thing? No. We struggle with home attendance and that has a deep and noticeable impact on the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light. We know this; it’s been discussed at length, and I encourage you to read this brilliant piece by Tom Atkinson if you’ve got a stiff drink to hand and you want to hear the grim perspective described to you in visceral detail, you sadists.

But whether our fan base is deflated or not, watching the lads on the telly has never been an unpopular pastime with Sunderland fans.

We spoke about iFollow a short way in to the season and now that the new year is upon us we thought it would be wise to see where it stands now it’s had time to fully establish itself.

The EFL
EFL via Getty Images

WHY CAN’T WE WATCH IT IN THE UK?

Cast your mind back to a time when business was conducted over a glass of fine Scotch and an expensive cigar: 1974! Burnley FC Chairman Bob Lord had enough drink and ignorance in him to declare that he would make a stand: “... against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews that run television.” A classy guy, I’m sure we all agree.

At the time Bob was defending his decision to ban television cameras at Burnley games, but this toxic belief had actually managed to worm it’s way in to the boardrooms of the Football League some ten years before, with the profligacy of television looming on the horizon. Indeed, the oblong box now graces almost every home in developed countries across the globe.

Soccer - Burnley
Bob Lord, former Burnley chairman
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Rich men guard money as a dragon hoards gold. But what Bob and his hard-drinking pals didn’t consider was that they would actually be able to make more money from it, not less. At the time you see it was commonplace to tell the people of the world that their lives would get better in the years to come; that work would get easier, not harder; that pay would go up, hours would go down, healthcare would be free and everyone would be happy because the world would be a fair place and through their ingenuity and hard work the common man would be uplifted.

Well. People are gullible, aren’t they?

The Football League would come to realise this soon enough though, and we can fast-forward to today, when the broadcasting of football is a multi-billion pound industry of itself. Indeed, tickets are even limited to ensure competition and high prices specifically for this reason. The FA and the multinational conglomerates that own the rights to broadcast have got this nailed down; they aren’t daft. It’s a license to print money and they know it.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

IS IFOLLOW WORTH IT?

Let’s look at iFollow for what it is: it’s a way to watch the match. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you support, you simply don’t turn your nose up at the opportunity to watch a stable, clear stream online these days. The fact that you technically have to be in a different timezone to watch it is a moot point for most, since we live in an age where most people are tech savvy and justifiably angry with the ridiculous restrictions placed on paying users of the internet.

The following clubs refused to sign up to the iFollow platform ahead of the current season:

Accrington Stanley, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Bristol City, Charlton Athletic, Derby County, Fulham, Hull City, Forest Green Rovers, Middlesbrough, QPR, Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

However, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Bristol City, Derby, Fulham, QPR and Wolves all offer their own platform for streaming their games live.

When it really boils down to it, only Accrington Stanley, Charlton Athletic, Hull City, Forest Green Rovers, Middlesbrough and - always the eager lemming off the cliff - Sunderland AFC chose to ignore their overseas fans.

Now the clear issue this reveals is that, dependent on who is pulling the strings at whichever club, providing this service is considered either the right or wrong move; it’s a decision taken by those that run the club. Otherwise the implication is that, say, Sheffield United have more fans abroad than Sunderland. Or Barnsley. Or any number of other unlikely scenarios. But the fact is that it’s a choice made by a human and that means there is no infallibility.

Why those other teams made the same choice, I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m certain that the reason our beloved Sunderland shunned this opportunity was somewhere between “it costs money” and “we aren’t that smart”.

Somehow I doubt it was the confidence that we’d bounce right back up to the Premier League. At Roker Report, we were told by the club that the reason behind this decision was that it was essentially a poor service and Sunderland wanted to provide something more in keeping with the value for money their fans sought.

But in place of this actual service, Sunderland charge a third of the iFollow subscription cost for previously free (and rightly so) digital service, SAFSEE, with which you can watch the full 90 minutes of the match a day after the fact. Huzzah.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
The truth is that it shouldn’t break the bank to provide a live stream, and the regulations are there to allow it. It’s only getting easier.
Photo by Matthew Ashton/Getty Images

It’s a big concern to me if I’m honest. The fact that Sunderland AFC were given the opportunity to provide live football to their fans abroad but chose not to do so is poor form.

As a club we have supporters and their branches all over the world. There are tens of thousands of Sunderland fans that don’t reside in Britain, and the fact that the club can’t be bothered to charge them to watch their beloved team live, in spite of the fact that they’d happily pay whatever the cost, is another fine example of the disconnect between those that love Sunderland and those that run it.

This apparent refusal to recognise that there are more than 48,000 Sunderland fans – even when you can clearly see the absence of a huge chunk of that number every week – is a short-sighted one, and to me it almost represents a lack of ambition when it comes to the brand of the club.

This becomes far more damning though when you look at the changes in broadcasting next season, and the new deal that’s been rolled out by Sky and the EFL. From 2019, all Championship clubs will be able to broadcast their own games live to their British fans through their own platform, outside the broadcast blackout window, so long as they aren’t being shown by Sky. Trouble is while there’s a whole bunch of teams in the Championship that will be able to use their iFollow/club platform to provide a real service to their fans, Sunderland aren’t one of those clubs.

Do they have plans to change that? We don’t know. One would hope that those heading up Digital and Marketing at the club would be sensible enough to notice the positive effects of iFollow and club-sponsored platforms and jump on the bandwagon.

Sunderland v Burnley - Premier League - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

FANS WILL ALWAYS ATTEND GAMES

There is an undeniable truth to watching Sunderland play: you do not do it out of a sense of profound gratitude to the club. You do not pay your money to support the owner or the regime, and we damn well know that having 40,000 people every home game doesn’t amount to financial success, because we had ten years of it before plummeting downwards, laden with debt and bad contracts.

And since their opportunities for watching their team from the comforts of an armchair/barstool have been stripped of them, surely by that logic you would expect record attendances at home games? Oh I think we’re close to breaking records but they’re record lows, not highs. Conversely, in that time when coverage wasn’t so restricted and we had access to dozens of streams as fans – both legal and otherwise – home support was consistently high, leading to the very clear and obvious conclusion that the availability of televised football matches does not effect the attendance of a club. You can extrapolate this for anyone bigger than us; the Stadium of Light is one of the largest in the country, and even if you released free live streams for the biggest clubs in the country you would still never see a decrease in the attendance of those games, because with greater success comes a happier fan base, and so there will always be as many arses on seats as there are seats available. Fancy that?

Our attendances now are because of the team, and successive mismanagement, and that’s because of the owner. That isn’t because people are lazy or addicted to television, it isn’t because they’ve fallen out of love with the game; it’s because they aren’t getting what they pay for.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Premier League
It isn’t televised fixtures that keep fans away - it’s poor football
Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

COULD SUNDERLAND AFC DO MORE TO PROVIDE A COMPREHENSIVE SERVICE TO ALL OF THEIR FANS?

Absolutely. Sunderland AFC have the means to broadcast their matches to their fans abroad at every given opportunity, and from next season they can broadcast whichever match hasn’t been selected for television by Sky or International TV that is outside of the broadcast blackout. So if they were prepared and willing, many games would be available to us from the comfort of our own homes. The recording facilities already exist and the cost incurred by the hiring of a company to broadcast a live signal from the back of a van is so negligible that it can barely be considered a cost, particularly when weighed against the club’s ongoing responsibility to provide a premium service for their loyal supporters.

It’s also plain to see that the club’s initial concerns for the quality of iFollow are unfounded, since so much success has been reported by users of the platform. Indeed, I’ve watched several of the games on my almost-unbelievable jollies across the continent and barring the odd signal issue I can readily say I was satisfied that I got what I paid for. It wasn’t Premier League quality (neither is the football) but it gave me what I couldn’t get otherwise: a view from the stands of my beloved team.

Sunderland v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

And that’s another thing: they can make money with this. They can charge whatever they please for the subscription to a service like this, and Sunderland fans are so in love that even season card holders would also pay to watch the match on those days when they simply can’t be there in person. To me it seems that they are simply ignoring a substantial revenue generator as much as they are their fans desires.

Let’s be honest with each other here: this is 2018. You can buy apps that control the temperature in your house while you’re a hundred miles away. You can order and pay for a drink through a little screen at the SoL, without ever having the pesky setback of speaking to another human. We’re talking about sending fat people to Mars.

Fat people. In Space. This is the future, guys. We can do better than this. And Sunderland AFC really ought to if they want to be considered a club that deserves a place at the top rung, let alone in the lower leagues. This is poor judgement and poor vision, and it needs to be remedied. Here’s hoping they see the light ahead of next season.