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Sunderland AFC risk letting down our loyalest fans with its digital agenda

When over 20% don’t have essential digital skills and millions remain financially excluded, the club has a social responsibility to ensure that all fans can access the club they love.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Outside the Stadium of Light on Sunday, before Sunderland AFC Ladies’ first home match in front of fans since the pandemic, there was little or no help available to fans who had turned up hoping to be able to pay on the door.

This week, I have heard a story about a Blackburn Rovers Ladies fan who travelled up to the Stadium of Light to watch their team play on the biggest stage that the FA Women’s Championship has to offer, only to find there was no way into the ground. They did eventually gain entry - but only after the driver of the Blackburn Rovers’ team coach used his own phone to help the person to purchase and download a ticket.

The crucial information - that it was an all-ticket game and tickets could only be purchased online, with no cash or card turnstile available, and that the ticket office would be closed - was only available to those who had internet access and who’d seen the announcements on the club’s official social media, or in Roker Report’s content in the lead up to the game.

This is just one story amongst many I’ve heard recently. We have been inundated with emails and comments on our articles about the fact that there are no cash turnstiles available for fans, and indeed there is no cash payment option for catering in the ground or buying tickets at the ticket office. The club shop remains closed, meaning only those with internet access and credit cards are able to purchase club merchandise.

We have heard of fans who’re losing patience and feeling, to be frank, disrespected and discriminated against by the one-size-fits-all approach taken by the club - even those with internet access, credit cards, and digital devices being frustrated by the tiny dots used to select seats on the ticketing website, for instance.

The data might well be telling decision-makers at the club that only a small percentage of the fanbase is directly affected, or that running the numbers shows that the lack of a physical club shop hasn’t dented shirt sales this season. It might, ultimately, be good for running the club as a lean and mean tight ship, making it fighting fit for the future.

But “the data” can only ever tell part of the story, and it often leaves out the human element that is so important in football and life in general.

Our fans, particularly but not exclusively in those in older age groups, rightly see this as an affront to their long-standing support for the club. It is an issue that risks compromising the brilliant goodwill that has been built up since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took over as majority shareholder in the club in January, and has been further energised by the fantastic job that Kristjaan Speakman, Lee Johnson, and Mel Reay have done with the senior squads so far this season.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As a 39-year-old “geriatric millennial”, I’m part of a small group of people in society who grew up in an analogue world and has lived their entire adult lives in a digital world. I see it as a privilege - to be part of the last generation to have got my footy news from Shoot and the Sports Echo, who camped on the pavement outside the ground for playoff final tickets, and for whom FA Cup Final Day was still the biggest day in the footballing calendar.

And I can now relive my youth on YouTube whenever I want, listen to interviews with my childhood heroes on demand, and stream live football matches with the world's greatest talents from around the world at the touch of a button.

Due to this privilege of being a digital native, Sunderland AFC’s move to go digital and go cashless doesn’t impact me at all. Indeed, it makes my life a whole lot easier. My digital match ticket wasn’t going to get lost on the way to the Wycombe game, unless I misplaced my phone. And even then, I could always download it from my email on a different device.

But this is far from the case for everyone who wants to go to the match. Digital and financial exclusion are very real, intractable problems in our society. The charity Citizens Online estimates that 4.5 million people in the UK have either never used the internet or not been online for the last three months. In 2019, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA ) published research estimating that 1.3 million UK adults are ‘unbanked’, meaning they do not have a bank account.

Yes, every year the number of people without internet access or a bank account gets smaller, but conversely, every year those without become further excluded and more marginalised. The pandemic has forced many to adopt digital banking and get used to buying online, but for those with the least, it has also meant a turn towards the wonderful people who provide free food for the community. Charities and public services have been unable to run basic IT courses, and many of these services have been devastated by cuts to local council and adult education budgets over the past decade or more.

Even where they do exist, digital inclusion initiatives - free IT courses, digital buddying schemes, etc - can only help address this so far; I know this as much of my job entails working on this issue amongst low-paid public service workers. There are and may always be those who, for whatever reason - be it money, physical ability, choice, or pure stubbornness - will simply not be able to use the technology effectively.

The UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee has cited three main reasons for financial exclusion: people who find it difficult to prove their identity, for example, those with no permanent address or who move often, those who do not have a passport or driving licence or paper utility bills in their name; previous financial difficulties that mean some people don’t want a bank account; and people who may need help to open an account, for example those who are illiterate or who live with sensory impairments.

These two issues - of financial and digital exclusion - are highly intertwined. As Marcus Rashford highlighted in his Spectator opinion piece this week, Ofcom estimates that 11 per cent of lower socio-economic households don’t have internet access.

I know the club is highly aware of the issues of poverty and social exclusion in the city - some of the key decision-makers have seen firsthand the amazing work being done by volunteers to help mitigate a problem that is ultimately the responsibility of the government to address.

I know they’re keen to work through the Foundation and with charities working in this field - the Sunderland Foodbank and our partners at the Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen - to do everything they can to help ensure people in our city don’t go hungry.

So I don’t have reason to doubt the social conscience of the senior officials on the Commercial side of Sunderland AFC, but I must question their wisdom in not foreseeing the reaction to their digital-only, cashless policy.

Football is also food for the soul for many people in our communities. The lack of access to our club for those without the skills or the means to purchase tickets online or using debit cards can have a devastating, alienating impact on an individual or a family.

Scraping together a few quid to go and watch a match now and again at the Stadium of Light might give someone on the margins of society some hope in dark times, some dignity and sense of being on an equal footing with the banker or the lawyer or the chief executive in the crowd, if only between the hours of 2 and 5pm on a Saturday a few times a year. It might be that £20 that comes in a birthday card, or the well-earned Christmas bonus, and a choice between using it to top-up your pay-as-you-go data or buying a ticket for a match. Who would want to be left in a catch-22 situation like that?

Sunderland v West Ham United - Premier League - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

The people who are excluded by the cashless society are those who are the most vulnerable: undocumented people, people who’ve had money troubles in the past, people who cannot read or write well enough to understand the process. These are the people for whom a football club can be a lifeline - for whom our club should be a hub of support and inclusion. Our friends at Tranmere Rovers know this and have rebuilt their club around the idea of being, essentially, a social and community service. Durham Wildcats are able to take cash or cards on the gate for FA Women’s Championship matches.

I, like many, have raised the matter with our Supporters’ Trust, the Red & White Army, and I know that they in are in dialogue with the club about these and other matters. I also know that key individuals are currently on annual leave, and meetings with fan groups with this matter at the top of the agenda will be happening in the next few days.

Let’s hope that a sensible solution can be found to this problem as soon as possible, and we can all get back to thinking about the successes we’re seeing on the pitch.

The following organisations have sources of help and information can help you and others to get online and access essential financial services like basic bank accounts:

Sunderland City Council - Get Online

South Tyneside - Get Online

Citizens Advice - Debt & Money

Money Help - Basic Bank Accounts

Age UK - Volunteer to help people learn digital skills

Learn My Way - Online IT skills courses

Make it Click - Find a Centre Near You

Foundation of Light - Better Skills Better Chances

Workers Educational Association (WEA) - North East

And there are many more local library staff, local charity workers, and dedicated public service workers in schools, colleges, care homes and social services across the region who can and will help others to get online, get help with their money, and get help with reading and writing. Asking for help is often the hardest thing, but it can make a world of difference.


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