A little bit of history was made this weekend.
As Sunderland fans settled down to watch the greatly-anticipated league season kick-off, it may have occurred to some that they were, for the very first time, sitting down to (legally) watch their beloved team play live on their TVs at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.
The sense of anticipation for the game, following six months without a truly meaningful fixture, was evident from the quantity of excited tweets I read throughout the day. Pictures of red and white striped shirts, TV set-ups and, yes, even pink slices were doing the rounds, along with messages of goodwill for the team and myriad predictions about the outcome of the vital campaign to come.
I’ve watched all the previous cup games and friendlies live on the club’s online stream, so I knew what to expect at the weekend, but I was looking forward to seeing whether Sunderland had done anything to boost the fan experience of watching the game, perhaps in recognition of the importance of the new season.
It’s not slickly produced coverage by any means, a single camera angle with Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett’s entertaining radio commentary from BBC Newcastle overlaid, in sync but slightly boomy. We had the familiar tones of Frankie Francis’ in-stadium team announcements before kick-off and the usual playlist of tracks could be heard blasting from the Stadium’s PA system preceding the action – all of which added a comforting air of familiarity to the build up.
In my view as a customer, what’s on offer to Sunderland fans – as a remote fan experience, – is okay at best. I don’t mind paying to see my team play, and a tenner a week for something you love isn’t too much for most people. We have no other option anyway other than risking going into crowded pubs and clubs.
And every time we log into the streaming section of the website to buy a pass (annoyingly, using a different username and password to the rest of the club’s site) it’s helping a little in the effort to keep the club afloat in these dark times.
The SAFSEE stream was stable enough for me, as it has been so far since Sunderland returned to the SoL against Carlisle in August. There was a notable increase in the number of instant replays of key moments included in Saturday’s coverage, which was good to see. Cost-wise the club is hamstrung, with the EFL determining the £10 cost of a pass for UK-based supporters.
Prematch, and during the break, the club have sold animated advertising slots, including one flashing ad that needs to come with some sort of health warning, but it’s good to see them trying to generate extra income in this way.
We know that there are hundreds of thousands of Sunderland fans out there around the UK, and around the world, and I’m sure they’re checking the analytics to see how many viewers were actually logged onto the stream.
We’ve got to hope that the viewing figures are good and, given the pandemic and financial situation the whole of football faces, that the club will be able to retain and even build the audience, even when results might not be going our way.
Yet it has quickly become a cliché to say that football just isn’t the same without the fans, and not without good reason. Surely we all miss the rituals, camaraderie and atmosphere as much, if not more, than the action on the pitch. As much as many of us worry that, sometimes, the Sunderland players can’t take the weight of our expectations at the Stadium of Light, it’s pretty clear that the team are capable of disappointing performances against weaker opposition whether the crowds are there or not.
But as a fan, whether you’re someone missing out on a home game or who would normally have been watching or listening online, it’s just not the same.
So when news broke on Tuesday afternoon that the British government is to is to continue to allow each EFL club to apply to take part in the pilot programme, started at Cambridge last week, to all clubs to bring 1,000 fans back into their grounds in a socially distanced, covid-secure manner, many of us were understandably excited at the prospect.
The EFL have called on fans to get their MPs to lobby the Government on behalf of their clubs, and I understand that fan groups the Red & White Army will be speaking to the club this week about whether or not they will put themselves forward.
The relatively modern Stadium of Light, with its central location, multiple entrances and exits, large concourse and large amounts of land around the ground, would, to the layman, seem a good candidate for the continuation of experiments with 1,000 fans. Early indications are that the club hierarchy may be interested in applying for Government approval, with fixtures late in September being talked of as a target.
Whether or not games will go ahead at the Stadium of Light with a small number of fans will still be dependent on whether the city, or indeed the country, itself is back in lockdown at that point - those areas that are will not be allowed to stage test events.
Nevertheless, there is already a discussion amongst some fans regarding what would be the fairest way to decide who gets to attend. A lottery of all the season ticket holders who have registered their bubble with the club might be the most straightforward solution, and it would be consistent with what happened at the Abbey Stadium last week, where bubbles of fans sat together.
Some, however, think it would be fairest to reward the most loyal fans, judged either through the length of time they’ve held a season ticket or the number of loyalty points they’ve gained, with the first opportunity. If you’ve not missed a home game for 25 years, the club owes you most. Others feel that this would exclude younger fans who are the future lifeblood of the club – a serious consideration that the club may well take into account.
Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that the spike in the pandemic in the north east can be brought under control quickly and a return to lockdown avoided. If so, it would be fantastic to see and hear even a small number of Sunderland supporters back where we belong.
But whatever happens, it remains the case that, for the vast majority, match days will be spent in front of a screen for the foreseeable future.
And, as ever more jobs in the north east and elsewhere are lost in the months ahead, and lockdown tightens around us once again, it will be a difficult task keeping as many fans - young and old - engaged virtually over the tough next few months, as the nights draw in and household budgets are stretched. Football as a whole still risks becoming one more subscription for TV consumption, competing against the other distractions of home life.
This goal, of getting more and more fans watching both at home and in the ground, will surely need a bit of creativity and collaboration from both fans and the club to achieve. But I hope that, by working together with the club for our mutual benefit, we can get at least part of what we miss - indeed, part of what we bring - back into the ground, and at the same time help the team feel more connected to the remotely viewing fans.
I’m sure that the club will be open to engagement with fan groups not only on their plans for the return to the stadium, but also to get feedback on the online match day experience and make any improvements that they practically can. The EFL has stressed the financial imperative to get fans in their seats as the economic impact of the pandemic bites harder with each game played behind closed doors and every potential revenue stream will need to be explored in order to keep the game afloat outside the top flight.
Whilst the current owners have supported the club to stay in business over the last six, long, fallow months, staffing at Sunderland AFC is clearly very tight right now, with some loyal employees recently reported to have not been recalled from furlough. Day-to-day costs are an issue for every club as they handle the double hit of paying out refunds to season ticket holders, player wages and other bills, without the usual match day revenues.
In the Premier League, the empty seats in the lower tiers of all stadiums have been wrapped in club colours with the extra advertising space sold to sponsors, and the huge global TV audience means that they can bring in up to an estimated £2 million a match, according to the website Campaign. We must assume that the reason Sunderland did not follow suit is because they wouldn’t bring in enough to make a profit on the coverings themselves, or maybe it too is a function of the skeleton staffing situation.
Perhaps, together with the club, we can create a scheme that might become a complement to the return of small pockets of fans, and an attractive alternative to advertising on seats.
And I’m not talking about spending thousands on tech to Zoom in a few supporter’ faces onto the perimeter hoardings. We need something better than simulated crowd noise, something more connected to us. Something we can engage with. Something symbolic.
Perhaps we could do it, en masse, with our flags.
This might also be an opportunity for re-engagement between the club and the fans, centred around the idea of bringing the people watching from afar on live streams closer to the action by having them represented in the Stadium in some way; bringing fans and players closer together.
In recent years we have seen the introduction of the wonderful pre-match flag display organised by supporters and groups, including the Red & White Army. But fans have always brought their flags into the ground to display where in this world-full-of-Sunderland- supporters they come from, either individually, in informal groups or organised by branches.
I think that a simple initiative from the club, inviting fans to send their flags and banners - old and new - to the club, with a receipt being issued, and then having these flags laid out across the seats, would work wonders. Perhaps there could even be a small administration fee to keep the scheme cost-neutral.
The returning fans could bring theirs too and, added to those amazing flags paid for by fans collectively and already stored in the Roker End, together we could make something spectacular.
Everyone understands that keeping the Sunderland staff and players as safe as possible, as the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly emerges once more, has to be everyone’s top priority at the club. The EFL insists that it is safe for fans to return if social distancing and effective sanitisation can be achieved. The number of people allowed on site on match days as it stands is strictly limited, quite rightly, but surely creative solutions can be found.
Other - albeit better resourced - clubs, such as Liverpool, and countries, such as Wales, have brought their fans’ flags in stadiums the last few weeks.
If volunteers can’t be brought in safely to help out, maybe even the Covid-tested Sunderland players could be roped in to setting up the display before the game - they will be in the ground on match days anyway, and it certainly would create a real bond between the team and the supporters; a new ritual. It might also be an excellent PR opportunity if the Lads could be filmed laying out the flags and seeing for themselves the history, local importance and global reach of the club.
This is just one idea, and one that probably has a dozen flaws that I’ve not thought of. Let me know what you think.
More generally, however, I do believe that some sort of initiative that aims to bring fans back to the Stadium of Light in spirit, even if not in person, may provide a route for the club to re-engage with the representatives of supporters and with the wider fanbase after a year of acrimony and tension between supporters and owners. Madrox Partners may or may not be on their way out of the club, but Donald and Co still have an interest in leaving the club in as healthy a state as possible.
If you have any ideas that you’ve come up with or seen work elsewhere, why not email them in and ask for them to be put to the club, or you can write to us here at RokerReport@Yahoo.co.uk, and we’ll publish them for the world to see.