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Exclusive Interview (Part Two): Charlie Methven spells out Sunderland’s plans for the future

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In the second part of the interview with Ken Spours of Roker Report, Charlie Methven looks to the future - how to grow the fan-base, the club as a sustainable business and a central civic institution.

Sunderland AFC

Charlie on… the difference between an economic sugar hit and meat and two veg

As custodians of this great club, our challenge is to find an alternative to the false, sugar-hit growth strategy of the Drumaville era. Rather than sugar, we need meat and two veg: something that is going to sustain and nourish the club for the long term and keep it healthy.

The alternative path is about building revenues in a sustainable way, so that the club becomes bigger organically – rather than through signing over-valued players and throwing free tickets around. Then we will be able to spend money we do have on playing staff rather than money we don’t have.

To get more paying customers through the door requires more than doing well on the pitch, vitally important though that is. It is the long, hard graft of refining what we have to sell, defining our message, and then consistently taking that message out to our target markets.

What does that mean in layman’s terms? Well, first off you need to make the experience of attending a Sunderland home match as attractive as possible. From sprucing up the stadium; to working on the Fanzone; to working with the council on traffic alleviation; to keeping prices as low as possible; to working with the Branches on supporting their efforts; to being relentless in our determination to employ playing and non-playing staff with the right ethos; to producing fun and engaging social media content; to communicating constantly with all other members of the club so that everyone feels ‘part of it’; to working closely with the Foundation in community outreach.

All these elements come under the heading of refining the product so that we have something attractive to sell, both to keep our current members on board but also to attract new members. Then we have to pull out the essentials of all that and make it into a short coherent message: SAFC is fun, accessible, steeped in tradition and totally true to itself – it’s a real football club and the antithesis of all that is crap about modern football. Something like that.

Sunderland AFC

Charlie on… Growing Sunderland’s market – the exiles and the Durham swing voters

Sunderland’s potential market is massive and it’s one of the reasons we were so attracted to the club. There’s an enormous diaspora of people interested in Sunderland. It’s a myth that you either can or will get everyone to come to every game. The challenge is persuading people who come two times a year to come four times a year; people who come four times a year to come six times a year; people who come six times a year to come ten times a year and get a season card.

That is the reality of football marketing - its hard graft, and being relentless and consistent in your actions and words.

As we go through this process with each individual target market, the underlying fanbase will grow – assuming we have our product and message right – and that will provide greater ticketing, retail and sponsorship revenues, which in turn will drive investment in the playing side. At least, it will if we do not allow off-pitch costs to spiral, as happened under Drumaville.

To harness the ‘exiles market’, we are putting in place an International membership scheme, to help them feel closer to the club, and also to enable new converts to the cause to have a way to affiliate.

I was in the US last week, with our brilliant US Branch head Degsy Aspinall and it was striking how he and his team are converting Americans who had never been to England into signed-up Mackems.

How? Well, if you’re going to choose an English team, don’t go for the one with the best players – go for the one with the best fans!

That is his message, and research that I have recently seen in the US market demonstrates very clearly that there is a significant segment of the 10 million American “soccer” followers who are looking for the non-obvious option. SAFC is a great fit for that, and the Netflix documentaries give us a real chance of demonstrating what we as a club and a fanbase are all about.

Closer to home, we see Sunderland as the club of County Durham - a densely-populated hinterland between the Tyne and the Tees. To be honest, it’s quite clear to me that the club has neglected this broader area since Niall Quinn, with whole towns gradually being allowed to turn black and white.

An example of this is the borderland town of Gateshead that has become more of a Newcastle place in recent years having once been more red and white. We need to head into these areas and explain the unique selling points of our club, targeting football fans who are ‘swing voters’ and looking for a fun, cheap, family-friendly, down-to-earth genuine football experience. Stewart and I are going to be relentless in targeting these areas.

A general view of the Stadium of Light

Charlie on… Sunderland as an accessible club

What do I mean by an accessible club? Our message is that Sunderland is a great, historic and traditional club which is accessible to all who want to join our army. We cannot promise Premier League football - not for now at least - but for a certain type of person what we can promise is a real closeness to a large club.

Sunderland will be somewhere where you will never be looked down on, as fans you will feel close to the players, the manager, the staff and directors and everyone’s in it together and winning, drawing and losing together, with a sense of humour and humility – unlike some!

The important thing is that fans should not feel like customers, rather they should sense that they are valued members of a club.

That brings me onto what I call “private ownership and moral sharing”. A club is a private business and therefore someone has to own it. But on a moral basis we then pool that ownership with supporters, staff and players. As directors we set the tone, but our overall job is to enable shared moral ownership.

A great example of that is what Stew did with the Seat Change. I have met with hundreds of supporters – and indeed with numerous players – who tell me that this enabled them to actually feel a part of the fabric of their own club. Not an ‘employee’ or a ‘paying customer’, but a fully bought-in member of the club.

I think that the vast majority of supporters welcome this opportunity for shared moral ownership, but it does come with responsibilities on BOTH sides, not just ours. It makes me sigh a bit when we do something like the Seat Change, and get abusive messages from some saying that “as paying customers, we shouldn’t be asked to do this just to save you money”…. or, if I criticise so-called supporters who choose to collude in an illegal streaming scam, people who tell me that I “shouldn’t call out potential customers.”

Here’s the deal, and it is a deal. Unlike other clubs, we will treat you like adults: we will communicate with you on equal terms, we will involve you as much as is possible, we will listen to you (our Structured Dialogue with fans groups will become a model for the rest of the country, by the way); we will laugh with you and cry with you... in every possible way, we will not patronise you as a “paying customer”.

So please, for heavens sake, don’t treat SAFC as if it’s just another corporate entity that you want to have a distant, critical-abusive relationship with. We aren’t your bank – we are your football club! I understand that the last few years have been very difficult, and that that has created in some a culture of suspicion and cynicism, but all we have ever asked is that we be judged by our own actions.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot face criticism. Stewart and I could hardly be easier to reach for those who have a suggestion or a criticism to make, and you will get quick feedback! And then, as I say, there is the Structured Dialogue by which we interact formally with all the Fans Groups four times a year, with a rolling agenda.

I want to enter a quick vote of thanks, by the way, to Andrew Hird and Dave Rose of the Red and White Army. I speak to them every week, and they are candid, critical friends. But, more than that, the proactivity of RAWA has been a breath of fresh air for the board – when people are up for working that hard with you, when they tell you are getting something wrong, you listen very careful because they have earned that respect. Top lads.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Charlie on… Sunderland as a well-run business and a pivotal civic institution

It is clear, to most of us, that the club has to be run in a sustainable business-like way, but it is not just a business.

In its surrounding economic and social environment, SAFC has a more important influence on the prosperity and happiness of its city because of the extent to which the fortunes of the city are bound up with football and its identity expressed through its football club.

Early in our ownership days I did some research on how people felt about the club and found that even those in city who are not football fans and did not attend games still felt SAFC expressed their identity.

It is extraordinary and wonderful that they recognise the club in this way.

It also points to the critical role of the Foundation of Light. Apart from the great work that Lesley and her team do, it also provides an expression of the community in relation to the outside world and is a central in releasing the potential of the club. As a civic institution, SAFC is so bound up in the city and its history that it is the exact opposite of a franchise where you can uproot a club – its sports team - and drop it anywhere.

If we all get it right, we are the anti-brand brand. The anti-franchise club. Everything that football should be and a rejection of some of the bulls**t that football has become.

Sunderland v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Charlie on… the Dortmund model of local identity and self-reliance

What Dortmund understood 10 or 15 years ago is that it’s possible to compete against the very biggest clubs if play to your strengths - being proud of what you are and accepting of what you are not. Dortmund has some similar features to Sunderland; a club in a large working-class industrial city and area that’s not very cosmopolitan or wealthy.

For us the Dortmund model would be making our stadium an absolute fortress; filled with passionate supporters and paying the lowest ticket prices possible. Rather than running up huge debts and being dependent on buying bus-loads of random players in, to focus on the academy and engage with community thus reinforcing identity and a belief in the players… Which then means that when carefully selected players DO come to the club, they are walking into a very special environment that they respect.

This then feeds into the enjoyment of being a player at the club and has a positive effect on performance and loyalty. But for this to really work you have to find the right type of player.

In every profession or trade there are people who are community-minded people and people who are not. I have met hundreds of players in my time in football and have found that there are players who flourish playing for a broader, community club and those for whom it is a nuisance. Take the case of Chris Maguire: when he played for us at Oxford, he felt he was part of something bigger – OUFC represents the whole of Oxfordshire and has a great foundation and academy. He then went to Bury, which is a nice little club but largely irrelevant beyond matchday and lost his mojo. Now, at SAFC, he’s back in his element, doing loads of community and fan engagement work for us and playing at his best because he is playing for something more meaningful than just a wage.

If you can find the footballer with that gene, they will never feel more valued in football than playing at Sunderland.. and it will take a lot to prise them away.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Charlie on… how Sunderland’s got under his skin

The first time I looked round the stadium I saw a big poster with a quote from Niall Quinn that went something like this – ‘at Arsenal I became a footballer, at Man City I became a man, but Sunderland got under my skin.’

I looked at it and I guess at a logical level I understood it, but to be honest I didn’t really get it. Four or five months later, I said to some friends I’d made up there, “Sh*t, Sunderland’s got under my skin. I now totally understand what Niall Quinn meant.”

It’s been the most enlivening experience of Stewart’s and my working lives. We’ve both been in the working world for 25 years, beavering away on different stuff, and we’ve never felt more alive than we have in these last sixth months.

Knowing the impact of what you are doing, for better or worse, is quite tough on the nerves. Over the period I must have had 10 to 20 sleepless nights. But when you get it right and you make the kind of decision that impacts positively on that number of people, it is unbelievable fulfilling in ways that I didn’t even know work could be.

It can feel like this great groundswell underneath you that comes from the fans, their families and the city. If you get this right and enable so many people feel so good about themselves and their families and community, whatever the financial outcome everything else is secondary to this deep sense of satisfaction. Get it wrong? I don’t even want to think about it.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images