Prior to the Carabao Cup draw there was talk from those wanting us to get a home tie, one of the reasons being it would be good to welcome a Premier League side to the Stadium of Light and get ‘a big crowd in’. Now we have been presented with a trip to the Emirates Stadium we will never know if that would have been the case, but I personally was never convinced.
The visit of the Stags this weekend comes on the back of two dismal League One games and that will presumably impact the size of the gate. However, the difference is crowd size is nothing new; League Cup ties in the final years of Roker Park were often relatively low and throughout the Stadium of Light era there has been a marked difference between league and any cup attendances – even when playing the same opposition.
This is in stark contrast to earlier periods when the biggest attendances of the season were often for FA Cup rounds.
Of course, fixtures in the later stages of competitions can attract decent crowds but even that is not guaranteed. At the moment the cups are our only realistic chance of a major honour and whilst they could also be viewed as a long shot at times, even when we reached the final of the 2014 Capital One Cup the gate for first leg of the semi-final was over 3,000 less than the lowest Premier League attendance of the season, despite being boosted by a healthy contingent from Manchester United.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not intended as a dig in any way at our support. The sheer volume of people still turning up to watch a League One club is hugely impressive and our average attendance so far this season is well above those of several top-flight outfits. The 31,547 who saw that cup semi was still higher than the averages attracted by nine other Premier League teams during the 2013-14 season and the vast majority of clubs in England would no doubt snap your hands off to get that sort of turn out. Compared to Sunderland’s own average for the campaign it was a drop of just under 10,000 though and considering the fact there have been instances of our reserve team getting 20,000 plus on occasions the disparity has often puzzled me.
Is it I wonder because we have a lot of people, and especially exiles, in our fanbase for whom the additional trips are too much of a strain? Could it be that folk find it a chore to have to arrange tickets and don’t like being put in an unfamiliar part of the ground? Or is it simply because the cups are not as valued as they once were and some of the opposition has been uninspiring? Whatever the reason, should the club be looking to reverse the trend and if so, how would they do it?
Pricing for cup games has nearly always been fairly reasonable, particularly when the amount charged has to be agreed between both clubs and I suspect that some opposing officials assume they are in for a bumper pay day. Money is no doubt another consideration for supporters, but for those that can afford it the £12 it will cost an adult to watch us against Mansfield this weekend isn’t that much more than what you would pay to watch a semi-professional match so represents decent value.
There are minimum prices that have to be applied in some competitions and if paying to get into cup ties isn’t a major factor putting people off then the current attitude from the coaching and playing staff wouldn’t appear to be either. The squad has been shuffled for understandable reasons, but it has always been very clear that Lee Johnson takes the challenges seriously and prepares his teams to have the right approach. If the players were going through the motions that would surely filter out to supporters, but we’ve had some decent cup football so far under Johnson and since coming in he has either won or overseen progression via penalties in every cup fixture he has managed.
If the club want to increase interest in some competitions they could perhaps look to make something of games and incentivise those that can come along – I’m no marketing expert admittedly and there may be reasons they might not be possible but club shop or refreshment vouchers are two possible avenues I wouldn’t mind being considered.
On a personal level one thing I would like to see is the return of a match day programme for these matches - in the past, I know some traditionalists liked the slimmed-down cup editions and their presence would help matches feel a bit more of an event. I don’t know if it would come at a cost to the club, but programmes are still a part of the matchday experience for many, and I noticed that South Shields were able to produce a pretty substantial one for the recent Durham Challenge Cup fixture against our under-23s - so I’d assume Sunderland have the resources to do similar.
There are fans that don’t think anything needs to be done about the difference in attendance sizes. It has certainly been the case that in some games the lower crowds have actually created a livelier atmosphere anyway and whilst a winning mentality always helps, our current position means that league form remains the priority. It is not an opinion I subscribe to myself, but a lot of supporters do not think it is anyway beneficial to focus on anything but trying to achieve promotion.
On the other side of the coin to all of this is the fact the away support Sunderland have brought for cup matches remains higher than many would expect. The Lads have been backed in good number throughout our run to the Carabao Cup quarter finals and there was even a strong following for the Papa John’s Trophy game at Lincoln City last month.
Following the ‘Stags do’ on Saturday the next Stadium of Light match is another game in the group stages of our trophy defence, and this brings up back to the topic of home attendances for such occasions.
With progression to the next phase already confirmed and the game against Bradford City a dead rubber, it looks set to welcome the lowest ever gate for a competitive game at the ground and possibly even the lowest Sunderland have had since World War I.
The current lowest number of faces at the stadium was 3,960 for the visit of Manchester United’s under-21s earlier in this season. In previous years crowds have broken the 5,000 odd barrier – good going for what is officially classed as a minor competition but whilst playing a virtual youth side will have been a factor in the slump I obviously remain in the minority when it comes to those who are willing and able to go home cup ties.
My circumstances mean I will be able to attend the Mansfield and Bradford matches, and I will probably enjoy the break from league action following the last two outings in Yorkshire this week. Me and the two mates I will be going with will just about be there on our todd though, and if Sunderland born Nigel Clough wants to leave his dugout on Saturday and join us in the home end I’m sure they’ll be enough room for him.