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Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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Opinion: “It’s time for everyone - the club included - to start taking SAFC Ladies seriously”

The last few weeks have highlighted that, despite the promises, there’s a long way to go before the Lasses are treated equally by SAFC!

Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

You’ve clicked through to read this article about women’s football, and I’m guessing there are two or three reasons for you having done so.

You’re either someone who already cares about Sunderland AFC Ladies and is keen to read as much as possible about the women’s game, or you’re someone whose interest has been piqued in recent weeks as we’ve upped our coverage of the Lasses and wants to know more, or perhaps you’re someone who has come looking for things to whine about, ridicule, or belittle in the comments section or on social media.

I have seen some of the feedback our writing about women’s football on social media provokes - the claims of preaching and being self-righteous in our support for the Lasses, even people saying that we shouldn’t be writing about it on Roker Report at all and we should find another platform. It’s a waste of time, they say, and the standard of football isn’t worthy of our efforts to promote it.

But we also speak to people close to the team itself and the die-hard Ladies fans, and we know they appreciate the innovation, effort, and detail that does into our material. No other club in the Women’s Championship receives the kind of attention that the Lasses do through Roker Report, and we’re proud of that fact.

We’re acutely aware that the audience for this content, or indeed the range of voices involved, is not yet as widespread as it could or should be. There are only five of us - three men and two women - who write and podcast regularly on the Lasses, as compared to the few dozen who regularly contribute coverage to the men’s side of the club.

Crystal Palace Women v Sunderland Ladies - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

But we do take this task we’ve set ourselves really seriously - negativity and snide comments only make us more determined. We were one of the first club fanzines anywhere to officially partner with the #HerGameToo campaign, and we did so because we know that women who play and write about football, and their allies, face sexist online and offline abuse regularly.

We believe firmly that working towards providing equal coverage is not only the right thing to do - living up to our shared values of inclusivity and equality - but it’s good for the future health and sustainability of Sunderland AFC overall.

A recent article for Deloitte Insights tells us why:

Women’s sports is ripe for greater monetization—if certain key elements fall into place. The challenge in 2021 and beyond will be for women’s sports to pull in substantial TV and stadium (as permitted) audiences consistently across multiple sports. Then, the value to sponsors will be self-evident, which in turn should raise marketing spend and awareness. But for this to happen, the entire sports industry—spanning federations, leagues, teams, sponsors, and regulators—needs to invest on a sustained basis in creating more opportunities for women’s sports to prove its commercial worth.

Let me repeat the key point from that quotation: teams need to invest on a sustained basis in creating opportunities for women’s sport to prove its commercial worth. I believe Sunderland AFC is, despite considerable improvements since the takeover earlier in 2021, failing to take these opportunities that are coming their way.

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Last week Sunderland’s game against Watford in the FA Women’s Championship was streamed live and the 3.30pm kick-off allowed fans of women’s football in the north east to attend the lunchtime Durham v Liverpool match at Maiden Castle, get home, watch a bit of WSL action on Sky, and then catch the whole of the Lasses game live on the FA Player.

We discovered this fact almost by chance - casually googling the fixtures for the biggest weekend of domestic women’s football of the season during our weekly Lasses podcast. It came as a shock to my dad - an Eppleton season card holder and long-term champion of women in the game - who texted me to say that it was listed as a 2pm start on the SAFC website.

This is what Women’s Football Weekend was meant to be about - increasing the visibility and accessibility of women’s football, and making the most of the opportunity provided by an international break in the men’s calendar that brought the men’s Premier League, Championship, and Sunderland’s League One game to a halt - bringing in new audiences, giving them the opportunity to grow their interest.

As it transpired, not even the FA’s streaming platform, the FA Player, could get it quite right. The coverage from Watford didn’t start until about five minutes into the game, and then when it did appear it was jumpy and unstable. All this a week after supporters had literally been turned away from Eppleton CW, leaving some in tears and others relying upon kindly helpers to purchase electronic tickets for them.

Thankfully, communications from Sunderland about access to Eppleton have improved significantly in the last week or so following the outcry (possibly because CEO Steve Davison had witnessed firsthand the shambles that took place before the London City game). The club produced a clear and concise page on their website with information about travel and ticketing options ahead of the Liverpool match on Saturday night.

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Liverpool are fully professional, and included two former Sunderland players in their lineup. Their ambition, structure, and resources are evident in the way they are beginning to dominate the division as the season approaches the half-way point. And whilst they are not above criticism - recently they decided there wasn’t enough space for women’s team for training at the men’s facilities - the 2013 WSL Champions have shown a ruthlessness and level of professionalism that is unrivaled in tier two.

In terms of the size, history, and prestige within the women’s game and English football more generally, of the sides currently in the Championship, only Liverpool or possibly Bristol can legitimately claim superiority over Sunderland. They organise busses to take supporters from Anfield through the Mersey tunnel to their home games at Tranmere’s Prenton Park. Sunderland couldn’t get it together to put on a few buses to get people from the Stadium of Light to Eppleton for the double-header on Saturday night.

Bristol City - another famous name in women’s football - and Liverpool provide live streaming of their women’s home games through their in-house platforms, and other clubs in the Championship - Coventry United and Durham in particular - have ensured that supporters can at least listen to live commentary of their clubs’ home games through partnerships with local community or hospital radio channels.

But nothing of this sort has been organised by Sunderland, despite the rights being there for each individual club to use as they wish.

Next week the Stadium of Light plays host to the England women’s national football team - and the match against Austria will be the most competitive of England’s home World Cup Qualification games; a perfect opportunity to promote the current Sunderland squad or the history of the club in producing talent for the national team (three of whom are in the squad).

Not that you would have noticed this game was even happening if you were the casual observer, rather than someone plugged into Twitter social media accounts of the Lionesses or the Stadium of Light. No billboards have been seen around the city centre advertising the event, no bus ads, no posters or signage at the Stadium of Light on matchday to encourage football fans to buy tickets, no radio or TV spots.

It really is like nobody is actually taking this match - or indeed women’s football in Sunderland - seriously. Perhaps this will change with a marketing blitz over the next few days, but it’s going to have to be quite something if we’re to get anywhere near the 30,000 supporters that Middlesbrough attracted for a friendly match in October 2019.

Let me say it out loud once again; if Sunderland AFC doesn’t step up to the plate on women’s football, others in the region with a keen eye on sports-washing and rainbow-washing their reputation will do so. Durham Women’s FC are a tasty and rather vulnerable morsel that will require major investment if it is to ever secure a top-flight license, and would provide a certain deep-pocketed despotic regime with a quick ticket into the WSL structures.

England Women v Brazil Women - International Friendly - Riverside Stadium
The record attendance of spectators at Riverside Stadium is shown on screen England Women v Brazil Women - International Friendly - Riverside Stadium 05-10-2019
Photo by Richard Sellers/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Kritstjaan Speakman has gone on the record to say how hard the club worked to secure the side’s place in the Championship this season - but even that sounds like it was done at the last minute rather than having been on their radar during the take-over process.

Mel Reay might have been given full use of the Academy and access to all parts of the football department at the club to make her small squad of part-time footballers as competitive as possible in tier two, but the club’s marking and communication department seem to have done the bare minimum to promote their work. The club hands the good folk at the Echo an exclusive interview with the gaffer or a player every so often - but the Zoom press conferences promised by club officials have disappeared into the ether. Players are banned from speaking to Roker Report.

We understand that Red & White Army has presented the club with the Premier League’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion standards and asked that a named club director be given personal responsibility for their implementation. For me, SAFC need to go a few steps further to ensure that what happened in 2018 and 2011, when the lack of commitment from the club coupled with a southern-focused FA pushed us out of the WSL structures - is unable to ever happen again.

The club should be making itself fit for the future across all departments, and a specific reference to the maintenance of both a men’s and women’s senior side in the professional league structures and a commitment to diversity made in the articles of association of the club would go a long way towards that goal. This type of reform to corporate governance is recommended by Bloomsbury Professional Law as a relatively low-cost, simple, and robust way for a modern company to embed equalities into its organisational identity.

The three-to-five-year plan that Speakman has mentioned that is under development internally at Sunderland will be very welcome when it eventually emerges. It is pretty clear that the aim will be to solidify the Lasses place in the Championship and eventually reestablish Sunderland at the top table of the women’s game.

I hope that it includes a clear commitment and funded pathway to fully professionalise the squad - with attractive full-time contracts that are competitive both with other clubs and with the careers that players currently pursue outside the game. Young players and players who might be looking to move onwards in their careers need to see that the club is ambitious and serious.

If Brighton and Hove Albion are aiming to grab the third Champions League spot in the WSL, having just created a new £8m training facility, I fail to see why Sunderland AFC shouldn't target something similar as the goal of their long-term strategy. Sustainable and gradual growth, yes... but with real purpose and the highest of expectations at its core.

This strategy must also be one aimed at growing the audience - 330 people attended the match on Saturday night and, even accounting for the fact that the evening kick-off might not have worked for many of the families who make up a good proportion of the usual crowd, and many would have found it difficult to get from the Stadium of Light down to Houghton in time, especially using public transport, it was profoundly disappointing.

Sunderland’s biggest crowd of the season is still below 1,000. This compares unfavourably with the 3,000 who attended a recent Bristol City match, or even the 1,100 who were at Durham’s game last weekend. It is a long, long way off the target of an average of 6,000 spectators for WSL matches (where we are aiming to play our football) and 1,000 for Championship matches that the FA wants to see in the next few years.

The plan has to set out how the club is going to ensure more people can see the Lasses - both in-person and online - and therefore how they plan to grow the commercial and sponsorship revenue around the club. This will necessarily mean planning to either vastly improve Eppleton CW ground or find an alternative home.

Indeed, anything less will be out of step with the vision of the new Football Association Strategy for Women’s Football “Inspiring Positive Change”, which is to create the best professional women’s sports leagues and competitions in the world - with the Championship and WSL, along with the FA Cup and Conti Cup, at its heart. We have fallen foul of not being aligned with what the governing bodies want to see in the past, and by 2024 the FA envisages:

• Clubs – and England – winning major international trophies;

• Increased average attendances at domestic league and cup matches;

• Higher viewing figures domestically;

• Increased broadcast reach of the domestic competition;

• New and bigger commercial partnerships across all competitions;

• A world-class workforce to meet the needs of the professional women’s game;

• Improved stadiums and training facilities;

• The best levels of player welfare and wellbeing in a women’s sports league in the world.

To reiterate the point made in the Deloitte article above, sustainability is all well and good as a long-term end goal but can only be achieved through proper investment. True sustainability is not achievable without considerable and sustained cross-subsidisation from the established and monetised men’s side of the game both at club and governing-body level, which we should always remember banned women’s football for 50 years in order to protect its revenue from the threat it posed in the 1920s.

A break-even model badged as self-sustainability, with player wages and infrastructure spending too closely linked to existing matchday revenues in the short-to-medium term, will be a recipe for stagnation and will see others with more foresight take Sunderland’s place once again. The video below sets out the future landscape of commercial sponsorship and advertising in stark terms.

From the fan side, we too need to act upon the resolution agreed at the Red & White Army’s AGM last week to form a separate Sunderland AFC Ladies Supporters Group. I know that it is something that the club itself would welcome, and would help to formalise the relationship and help us to play our part in the future of the club. It will help us to build a unique identity and atmosphere at Eppleton, to organise fans for away days, to be consulted directly on the future of the club.

To that end, I’m in the process of creating an expression of interest form for people who might want to play a part in this new group, a group for fans of the women’s section of our club, inclusive of all genders, ages, ethnicities, and sexualities. In the meantime, anyone who is interested in helping can contact me on Twitter @MackemRich. Please join us, and Ha’way the Lasses.

Andy’s Player Ratings: Cambridge United 1-2 Sunderland - Massive three points for Johnson’s men!

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