Living in America, the sporting term ‘franchise’ is often used in the place of ‘club’, and it’s something that always bothers me. The term franchise has a host of definitions, and at the centre of almost every interpretation is the notion of commercial dealings: cash and profit.
It’s an errant system this franchise malarky - it only really seems to work in a closed environment. The MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, and the NHL are all professional sporting leagues that have a set number of teams featuring in each season’s campaign. Teams can be added to the league, and they can be moved to a different location, but rarely are they entirely removed because, ultimately, they make very large sums of money.
But football isn’t like that, and, in my opinion, it should never try to be. Football feels like the only really romantic sport left, if truth be told. Professional football in England - and indeed Europe - is far more than facts and figures; at least it is to the fans, anyway. This is a sport of highs and lows, romantic upsets, and the fabled ‘what if’ - it’s not about drafts, projections and profit, though the Premier League feels like it’s edging closer in that direction.
After listening to this week’s Roker Rapport Podcast with Steward Donald and Charlie Methven, I can’t help but feel a sense of genuine optimism after hearing them talk about building a community at Sunderland; about making this club so much more than a franchise. Of course, it’s all just talk at the moment, but should the duo follow through with their early promises... well, this could be the start of something very special.
Stewart Donald spoke passionately about engaging with the fans during the fantastic, hour-long podcast:
We have to get the fans fully engaged in the football club. Modern football has made fans feel disengaged to their club, and I don’t think that’s ever more true than at Sunderland. All I can say is that we care about their enjoyment, about the experience, we understand it’s not just the Saturday afternoon, they want to feel part of their club, they want to know what’s going on in their club. All we can do as owners is engage and give the fans the opportunity to do that.
One of two things will happen. Hopefully, either fans will take a bit of that on trust and come down and help us and get behind the lads or they will turn around and say “I’ve heard all this before, it’s been like this for 10 years,” which is fine as we need to earn their trust. To get that top tier open we need Sunderland fans behind us and all we can do is our best.
But, then again, Martin Bain also spoke along similar lines when he first arrived at the club back in 2016:
We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.
We want to get back to basics. The football club has to be synonymous with its North East identity. I think it’s probably lost its identity at times trying to be a club it’s not.
Passion is probably the biggest single word I can use. It’s an unbelievable fanbase. People like me can be patronising at times but I actually genuinely mean it.
So what’s the difference? Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing; however, looking back at Bain’s words, it’s now clear to see they were nothing more than mere platitudes. Generic drivel spouted forth from the gob of a man who failed to accomplish anything he set out to achieve. “We want to get back to basics.” In what sense? On the pitch? In the offices? In the kitchen?
Bain used a host of throwaway remarks during his time - his comments on sourcing players from the German lower leagues was another disposable line that saw no action taken, and fans soon became alert to his fictitious language and promises.
There was no solidity in anything Bain said, and there was little in the way of concrete evidence to reinforce any promises he made. Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, however, have made some very bold statements that are far more specific. A promise to engage with fans (and a track record of doing so at their last club), exploring avenues by which fans would be able to help renovate a ‘tired’ Stadium of Light, to fielding a vast array of questions thrown at him by a fanbase desperate for change - Donald and Methven managed to do more in sixty minutes that Bain managed in almost two years.
Of course actions speak louder than words, but the ownership duo’s promises thus far are exciting in their own right. There’s a real substance to their direction, and for that reason alone, fans are excited at what lies ahead.
Moving forward, it feels safe to say that Donald and Methven will look to do things slightly differently. Of course, they’re interested in making the club profitable, but at the same time, Donald keeps stating the fact that he’s here because he’s a football fan with the capability of buying a big club like ours. There’s a sense of romanticism in his presence, and that’s something to be cheered.
The notion of making fans part of the project, of making them proud to support their club again, is something we’ve yearned for for years. This could well be the moment in which we’re invited to take ownership in any potential success, and we should grasp the opportunity with both hands.
Many will remain guarded going forward, and I don’t blame them after years of abuse. But the suggestion that the club and its core (us) will be at the forefront of all decisions going forward is a monumental shift in attitude - not just for this club, but for fans in general.
As a club, we find ourselves in a very unique situation whereby we have the opportunity to forge an identity of our own - one very different from the standard expectations of big clubs throughout the land. Say goodbye to throwing money at issues in the hope of fighting for scraps discarded from the top table, Sunderland have the chance to build something very distinctive here - and the fans will be the driving force behind any success we hope to find.
It feels like a new dawn here on Wearside - now is our chance to mould it.