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Trust the Supporters to save Sunderland AFC

It’s time for Sunderland fans to do what’s necessary to secure the future of our club. Roker Report editor and Red & White Army co-oped member, Rich Speight, has spoken to RAWA about the upcoming EGM.

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Despite, or perhaps because, of everything happening in the world right now - a football club in crisis, a curtailed season decided by average points per game, a looming economic meltdown and a deadly pandemic still ravaging the world - the Sunderland fanbase has never been more united than it is at this moment.

The patience of the vast majority of supporters has been stretched beyond breaking point by the current ownership, and calls for action grow stronger with every player sale, every miscommunication, every twist in the narrative. Even those who have chosen to renew their Season Cards out of pure loyalty have done so with little enthusiasm.

We want new owners. The only the question of how we achieve this goal and avoid this situation ever happening again remains unanswered. The prospect of a different individual or group taking control, only for us to later discover that they too are taking us for a ride, should motivate us to do things differently.

We are the club. It only exists because of us. We are the constant, the base upon which everything else is built.

In a month’s time, we have the opportunity to change the course of our club’s history, and it’s an opportunity we should take.

The news that the Sunderland fan group, the Red & White Army (RAWA), is to hold an Emergency General Meeting (EGM) on 23rd July to discuss a motion to convert in a Community Benefit Society should, therefore, be welcomed warmly by supporters everywhere. RAWA members - that’s everyone who has signed up to their email list - will receive the proposed motion on 1st July. According the current RAWA Committee, it is being drafted by the Committee with the assistance of the Football Supporters Association (FSA):

The motion will be amenable, in part, and members can email suggested amendments. This process of amending the motion can even take place during the meeting, but we hope not, as we think what will be proposed is sensible and an efficient way forward. Once the Trust is in place, policies can be made afterwards, as such, it’ll be adaptable even after the vote.

A Natural Progression

On one level, this is hardly a revolutionary proposal. As RAWA point out in their statement, we are one of a handful of clubs with big fanbases that does not have a Trust in place already. This move is simply bringing us in line with the norm - according to the Committee “it’s the natural thing for RAWA to become”.

There are things that Supporters’ Trusts are able to do that RAWA as it is currently constituted cannot, such as raising finance, and on a practical level the conversion would be a sensible move in its own right. Indeed, I understand that the Committee would have been proposing this course of action at the next Annual General Meeting in any case.

Ipswich Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It would, however, be disingenuous to suggest that the motion at the EGM is simply about tidying up a constitutional anomaly; we cannot ignore the context in which this change is taking place. There is a real sense of urgency born of the anger and dismay at the words and actions of the Madrox Partners, and those who they’ve employed to run the club day-to-day. As has been outlined to me by RAWA Committee members;

That... has certainly got people talking and motivated... when the direction of your club seems to be the way it’s going [now], it is worrying and it does focus the minds of supporters.

Fans outside the top two divisions are waking up to the fact that, without significant government intervention in the marketplace, there is currently no viable business model for professional football. Paying customers coming through the gates are the single biggest revenue stream at this level, and the prohibitive cost of playing games behind closed doors was the underlying reason behind the vote to end the division early.

We hope against hope that a Covid-19 vaccine can be rolled out as soon as possible and we can get back to the terraces, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Sunderland AFC is immune from the risk of going bust as things stand. The fire sale of young assets from the playing squad that we have witnessed over the last few weeks is telling; if a club whose owners have taken £20m out of the club is so desperate for cash that it feels it necessary to sell a local academy product for £350k, then it is legitimate to assume that things are pretty desperate behind the scenes.

Show Me The Money

Sunderland has been up for sale for 12 months and nobody has yet taken on the financial burden of funding our future. Yet football finance expert, Kieran Maguire, has suggested that many EFL clubs are currently worth little more than a pound.

Low club values, falling player wage costs, overall wage caps and squad size limits surely combine to make a fan-owned future clubs at this level more viable than ever. Sunderland has by far and away the largest and most engaged fanbase, and the most well developed infrastructure, of any club in League 1, and this gives us the potential to break the mould of fan ownership in England.

To date, it has been a model reserved for smaller clubs without the ambition to play in the Premier League. Portsmouth’s Supporter’s Trust successfully rescued their club from administration in 2013, before selling out to a wealthy consortium four years later when it became clear that the costs of competing above League 1 would be insurmountable. But things are very different now than they were in 2017.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the SAFC Supporters’ Trust will be able to take full or majority ownership in the short term, even if it was offered to us for a quid. More desirable would be for an element of fan ownership, potentially alongside involvement from the local authorities, to be included in the takeover of the club by serious and experienced investors who have the ambition and resources to drive us back into the Premier League.

But we should at the very least be prepared for the scenario that our saviour will not come, and to follow the path taken by Portsmouth fans if and when required. It would take serious effort from serious people, but we are more than capable of it.

The alternative, lest we forget, is Bury.

A Community Benefit Society is able to raise finance from a range of sources, including from its members through subscriptions. According to Cooperatives UK, they “offer a way to boost community engagement, raise finance and secure charitable status and confidence from investors”. In the five years to 2017, 60,000 people in the UK invested over £60 million in community shares in organisations ranging from shared workspaces for tech start-ups to community power generation schemes and, of course, football Supporters’ Trusts.

As things stand, it looks likely that annual membership of the new Trust will be under £10, but this on it’s own would set the ceiling on the revenues of the new organisation at hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, rather than the millions needed for the Trust to invest meaningfully in the club long term, should the opportunity arise.

Socio clubs in Spain and Portugal wholly owned by their supporters, such as Benfica and Bilbao, have a subscription of around £120 a year, and the RAWA Committee confirmed to me that “Trust members will be able to invest as much of their own case as they like, but it doesn’t change the voting rights. It’s one member, one vote.”

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Leeds United v Sunderland - Wembley Stadium Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The Challenge of Democracy

This leads me to perhaps the biggest challenge the new Trust will face. Many an undergraduate essay and, indeed, a number of unpublished PhD theses, has been written on the desirability, morality and effectiveness of representative democracy as a system of decision making. Students will often quote Winston Churchill to underline the equivocal footing upon which our faith in electoral politics rests:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their master

The elected RAWA Committee has done sterling work in holding the club to account through structured dialogue and galvanising the supporters to improve the match-day experience, particularly in the Roker End of the Stadium of Light. And, although it is almost inevitably be the case that most of those involved in Trusts are civic minded and community orientated citizens with strong principles and values, that doesn’t mean that they will be able impose their views on others.

Our neighbours down the A184 have a Supporters’ Trust, and they have followed their members’ lead in supporting the controversial takeover of their club by the investment arm of Mohammed Bin Salam’s Saudi regime - and this trumps any personal moral misgivings about Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses that their leadership may have.

What is being proposed, then, is a representative system of governance for the new Trust, with opportunities for members to voice their opinions and propose their ideas. According to the current Committee:

Members of the Trust will be able to propose motions, and vote at an AGM and stand for election to the board. In that way it is very similar to how RAWA is set up now. Anyone suggesting its self appointed individuals have got it wrong, it’s often an assertion we see on social media from time to time by people looking to pick holes in the idea.

If people look at the constitution, read what we do now and how we do it, and come along to open meetings or AGMs, they’ll see the opposite of “self appointed”. Anyone can stand for election.

RAWA, being relatively new, has only had two AGMs so far, but we’ve already had two different treasurers and secretaries who actually go beyond that role and help lead the organisation alongside the Chair and Vice Chairs.

The Trust will be equally democratic and we hope it will ignite more interest with more members and more people putting their hand up to stand for elected positions.

A purely procedural democracy is unlikely to be enough, however. The new Supporters’ Trust will require the ongoing commitment of the most passionate people, as well as those with the skills and experience to run it professionally, but it also needs to reflect the diversity of the fanbase as a whole.

It is well established that structural inequalities mean that participation in democratic membership-based organisations is almost always skewed by age, income, class, race, gender and education; studies of fan ownership across Europe have shown this consistently. And RAWA have told me that new people will be welcome to get as involved as they like; “ voluntary organisation like RAWA, at an ‘eventful’ club like SAFC, could always do with extra help”.

English Soccer - Sunderland New Stadium
Building a better future for Sunderland AFC
Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Thorough and consistent transparency, in stark contrast to the way in which Sunderland AFC is currently operating, will be key to the ongoing participation of the members and sustainability of the Trust as the central organising vehicle of the fanbase. The Committee envisages that alongside an elected committee, the co-opted membership model will be retained:

We’re very lucky in that there is a great range of skill sets amongst the current elected committee and indeed many of the co-opted representatives. We intend to retain the co-opted idea too, by the way. It works well having representatives as a sounding board beyond the elected individuals. Not all supporter groups do that, but it’s one of the ways that RAWA strives to be representative and inclusive.

Currently, the main fan media groups as well as the Branch Liaison Committee, representatives of the clubs commercial partners, and those representing women, the disabled, older and younger supporters, ex-players and the Ladies team and others have co-opted members, and we are consulted about RAWA activities and statements.

But decisions, at present, rest with the elected RAWA Committee and this will remain the case as they will have more legitimacy to “speak for the fans” than anyone else.

Nevertheless, there is also a growing movement to use digital democratic participation tools, such as Loomio, that can bring more people into the decision making process inside membership organisations. They have the aim of achieving consensus on future policies through discussion and open disagreement, rather than through the divisive mechanism of binary ‘yes/no’ voting, and something I will be urging the new Trust to embrace wholeheartedly.

We Are Sunderland, Say, We Are Sunderland

Enough has been said and written about the way Sunderland fans have been treated by those who claim to be mere custodians of our hopes and dreams. There is no doubt or division any more.

Now is the time for action. It’s now down to us to ensure that we all have a club to support when football returns.

We must be prepared for the future, and when the only viable plan to address the crisis facing the industry involves Supporters’ Trusts taking on shares bought with public money by a new Football Finance Authority, we must take the necessary first step.

This doesn’t involve you boycotting the Stadium of Light or not renewing your Season Card. It doesn’t involve standing outside the Murray Gates with a placard shouting at an empty building. It involves participating, voting in favour of the motion, paying a few quid to become a member and, if you can, getting involved in saving our club.

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