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Tone-deaf Sunderland update likely to leave fans feeling forlorn

Sunderland AFC’s season card Q&A has left many fans feeling troubled. “You could go on and on with small examples of ways in which the club could have framed the narrative to be open, honest, empathetic, and positive, yet they didn’t.”

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Yesterday Sunderland AFC published a piece on the club’s website that has caused some concern. The Season Card Q&A aimed to “provide further detail across multiple areas of the club,” but, truthfully, the piece did little to provide the kind of positive discourse many fans had hoped for - especially during these difficult times.

After reading through the answers to questions posed by the fanbase, I couldn’t help but feel that the piece was incredibly tone-deaf and arguably bordered on being callous. The tone of the following snippet from the Q&A, for example, just reeks of indifference and a lack of regard:

Should the 2020-21 season start, or be played in its entirety, behind closed doors, would supporters that have renewed receive a proportional refund for the games that they are unable to attend?

A. In the event that any 2020-21 games are played behind closed doors, season card holders would receive a streaming pass only for the corresponding games and no further refund would be provided either by way of cash or voucher.

It was stated that if the 2020-21 season starts behind closed doors, supporters who renewed would receive a streaming pass at no additional cost. Is this as well as a refund, or would this be the solitary replacement for any games missed?

A. No, as stated above, season card holders would be provided with a streaming pass only for any games missed and no additional or alternative refund would be given.

If there are multiple season card holders in one household, will incentives or proportional refunds be offered for multiple renewals as opposed to offering multiple streaming passes?

A. No, as detailed above.

Subsequently, fans are once again upset with the club’s ownership who have struggled in recent months to rekindle a stuttering relationship with the club’s fanbase.

To be fair, some might argue that the club need the cash, and that by renewing season tickets fans are doing their bit to help. I get that way of thinking - the innate desire to rally together and help one another is seemingly ingrained within people from the North East.

However, the club haven’t approached this situation with the right mentality or propriety. And the crux of the matter is that after borrowing millions of pounds of the club’s parachute monies to help finance a deal for the club and noting that Sunderland is probably the financially most stable club in the EFL, to then arguing that the Government should intervene to help finance EFL clubs, to now asking fans help generate “as much operational income as possible to achieve security and success both on and off the pitch,” the club have effectively alienated a large portion of the fanbase.

The whole series of answers to legitimate questions asked by the fanbase simply felt obtuse and out of touch. Instead of a sympathetic approach to the issue at hand, the club have been caught in their own multi-truths, meaning they can’t admit fiscal weakness due to the bravado exhibited when discussing the club’s apparently stable financial status for so long.

As such, asking fans to cough up £300+ with no guarantee of the product being paid for, and instead offering a digital streaming service per season ticket purchased, has left many fans rightly upset. To broach the subject in such an unsympathetic and conceited manner stings even more. To see so little sympathy or flexibility offered to a group that has backed the club financially through thick and thin, felt incredibly disappointing.

That’s why over 77% of the people who voted on our Twitter poll argued that they wouldn’t be renewing their season tickets ahead of next season - something that will likely harm the club’s operational abilities.

Back in 1998, the Harvard Business Review interviewed Michael Dell about how he had led his company to generate $12 billion in just 13 years. Dell argues time and time again that the customer needs to be put at the forefront of all decisions:

At Dell, we believe the customer is in control, and our job is to take all the technology that’s out there and apply it in a useful way to meet the customer’s needs.


Increasingly, what matters is what the customers want and whether it works with all their other stuff.

I’d argue that football fans shouldn’t be considered merely as customers, but if that’s the way we’re to be looked at by our current ownership, then perhaps they could take a leaf from Dell’s book and listen to the those spending the monies that effectively keep the club afloat.

Fans were simply asking about a reduced payment for a reduced service, and the potential for delaying some payment dates as a courtesy: the answer was a hard ‘no’.

I’m not one to complain without offering some kind of positive input, though. So, these are a few thoughts of my own that might have helped the club sweeten the deal, so to speak.

Obviously, fans would prefer a reduction in price for an inferior product, so why not be open and honest about the income needed to help pay for operational costs? HBR polled consumers back in 2012 and 64% of respondents argued that they considered a company’s values to be crucial in helping them to develop a relationship with the company in question. If Sunderland fans don’t know what their money is going towards - whilst also being skeptical of a £20 million hole in the club’s accounts - then perhaps an honest approach might have been a worthwhile endeavour?

Furthermore, if you can’t offer the fans exactly what they wanted, then offer them something else to help make up the difference.

For example, this season’s training gear is soon to be out of date with the new Nike deal forthcoming. So why not give fans a major discount on the training wear, or even give the surplus away?

Furthermore, you could give fans a set number of free beverages at home games to show your gratitude. Would fans suddenly stop buying pints, for example, if they’ve been given one for free? Probably not as people tend to buy more and spend more if they are in receipt of a discount.

You could also offer season ticket holders a number of free tickets for certain games that they could give to friends and family. Arguably, the club could even use this to their advantage: offer tickets to games that might not draw a higher gate and see a bump in spending on food, beverage, and merchandise.

You could go on and on with small examples of ways in which the club could have framed the narrative to be open, honest, empathetic, and positive, yet they didn’t.

Unfortunately, this dispassionate approach will likely do far more harm than good.

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