There’s nothing quite like attending live football. Fans at games truly do make the game and it’s what we as football fans live for. I drive hundreds of miles to watch as many Sunderland men’s games as I can each season, home and away.
But I live in Wales, 240 miles from the Stadium of Light, and am planning trips around work, family, writing, and podcasting, so I can’t get to nearly as many matches in the flesh as I’d like.
Sunderland is renowned for having fans in every corner of the UK, and all around the world. For people living abroad, there’s the fantastic option of paying £180 to legitimately stream all the club’s men’s league games live whilst financially contributing to the club they love. Live streaming has transformed the fan experience for these far-flung exiles, but for those who are not across a state border, it’s more difficult.
I understand that options for viewing the mens’ games inside the UK are open to those with the know-how; one that involves the club receiving money, and one that doesn't. This isn’t the fault of Sunderland AFC - it’s due to the EFL TV deal and a Saturday 3pm embargo that many believe is now outdated.
The history of the televisation of football in England is one of denial, resistance to change, reluctant adoption, and then a close embrace that transforms the entire business model and opens up new markets and previously unavailable revenue streams. Fears over the impact on paying punters coming through the turnstile have always been there, and may in certain circumstances be justified, but ultimately increasing the number of people who are able to watch English football has resulted in increases in revenues overall.
The romance of having all the men’s football fixtures kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday and 7.30 on a Wednesday is long, long gone. We might miss it, but this isn’t the 1980s, this is 2021.
The pandemic has changed consumer habits across the economy, increased the overall digital capabilities of many people, and football clubs have developed the infrastructure and skills to do it properly, and the range of football on offer has also expanded - particularly the rising profile of the women’s game.
EFL Chief Trevor Birch was on The Price of Football podcast this week and made it clear that the iFollow service has played a part in preventing a financial catastrophe for football outside the Premier League.
Streaming live football matches that are being played in front of a live audience is a hundred times better than the sterile sports-hall sound we had last year, and a million times better than the synthetic crowd noise. And, in order to grow, Sunderland AFC (along with all our fellow clubs across the country) need to engage new audiences and expand its offer beyond the Saturday-Tuesday rhythm of the EFL fixture list.
On Sunday afternoon, I and a few other Roker Reporters were tuned into the Sunderland AFC Ladies match provided free on Bristol City YouTube channel. It was a professional production, the one-camera coverage was pretty good and the team of a knowledgeable commentator and a Bristol City player provided a great description of the action.
They’re able to do this week-in-week-out for the Vixen’s home games, and at the time of writing the video has been viewed over 2,300 times. That’s 2,300 people noticing the sponsors' brands, 2,300 people hearing the names of the players, 2,300 people engaged in the game who might pay to go to watch a game in the FA Women’s Championship.
It was a rare treat - no legitimate or illegitimate options are normally available for Lasses fans to stream games if they’re not (as they were last week) the featured game on the FA Player. There is no radio commentary for Sunderland Ladies games (Coventry United are able to do this).
Despite the disappointing result, Sunday provided a glimpse of how Sunderland AFC could engage a larger number of people with what will become an increasingly important part of the club. Under KLD, Sunderland have done more than they ever have done to promote women’s football - we need the club to stay focused on continuing to ensure that as many people as possible know who the players are and can watch or listen to them play on a weekly basis.
The numbers might not be massive, and investment is going to be needed for Sunderland to achieve the same production values and audience as Bristol, but this is a long-term game. The work put in now will pay dividends in future - both in terms of paying customers and in girls who see a future in the game.