Sunderland AFC Ladies are currently unbeaten at the top of the FA Women’s Championship table after three games of the new season played, with a big game against Lewes coming up this Sunday at the Stadium of Light.
Alongside the efforts we’re putting in here at Roker Report to ensure that the Ladies games are covered as best we can, and to ensure that fans are kept up to date with the latest developments with the team, there’s absolutely no doubt there has been increased coverage of Sunderland Ladies this season on the part of the club itself.
It’s been great to see - with match previews, highlights packages, interviews with Mel Reay on the club’s podcast and in the Echo, and a digital matchday programme available for free online - but they must not stop there.
We understand that they’re reviewing their communications around the women’s side right now, and there are definitely further initiatives that could be organised to increase awareness of the women’s section of the club and, crucially, increase attendances at the Lasses matches this season.
There’s nothing like word-of-mouth to spread the message, and to aid this Sunderland could allow Eppleton season card holders to bring along two guests with them to a specific game, free of charge, to increase awareness of the Ladies games and create a bit of a domino effect. Perhaps this could be targeted at under 18’s, with kids getting in free.
Our colleague Katie Hume spoke on our Monday Lasses podcast about how at our neighbours, Durham Wildcats, local girls teams are given free tickets and asked to come along and play minigames on the pitch at half time. This brings in dozens of families, who then come back week after week as they can see a pathway into the game and a safe and friendly environment for their youngsters.
Sunderland have a history of links to the local community, and doing something like this as traditionally the biggest women’s team in the region, would help to ensure that pipeline of talent continues to flow for many years to come. As Accrington Stanley have shown with their free shirts initiative in schools for their men’s side, once kids have got the bug for a team, they’ll be back for more.
Ensuring that information is available online about the players themselves and that the club’s website, as well as pages on sites like Wikipedia, are kept up to date will help fans to get to know the team and stay up to date with developments. At the minute, there aren’t even any profiles of the squad on SAFC.com - something that smaller outfits throughout the women’s pyramid are able to do for their women’s teams.
As not every fan is able to get to every game home and away. To be able to see highlights and a full game re-run the day after the match is great, and a huge improvement on last season. This service is provided free, centrally, by the Football Association on its FA Player website and app, and gives fans the means to watch their side in action, albeit after the event.
One FA Women’s Championship game a week is featured live on a Sunday afternoon, and this coming Sunday our game at home with Lewes FC Women will be broadcast on the FA platform for everyone to watch. Hopefully, this won’t impact the numbers coming through the turnstiles at the Stadium of Light and will add to the buzz and interest around the game.
As we touched on in our Lasses Twitter spaces on Monday evening, it would also raise awareness and create excitement if there were to be live match audio commentary provided by the club of the Lady Black Cats games. Radio commentary is a difficult field to get into and hard to do well, so the club could possibly use local contacts in order to find someone at a relatively low cost.
At fellow FA Women’s Championship side Coventry United, they’ve partnered with a local community radio station, Radio Plus Coventry, which gave Sunderland Ladies supporters the ability to listen to our first game of the season. They've informed us that the audio broadcast rights were not bundled in with the TV deal, and each club is free to offer them to local media organisations to increase the accessibility of their women’s teams.
The lasses will be working within a budget so it may be prudent to look to a possible link with Sunderland University to work with a budding commentator from amongst their journalism students.
Perhaps it could be trialled for away games only initially - although this will require negotiations with each of the other clubs and we know that Charlton, for example, will only allow away teams audio commentary to go out after the final whistle, rather than live.
Making Eppleton Colliery Welfare ground a real home, with a proper fortress feel, and identity owned by the Lasses and their fans, will also be important to ensure that Sunderland AFC Ladies can go from strength to strength and reestablish themselves back at the top of the game where they belong. Working with the Red & White Army on improving the fan experience there will be key to this endeavour.
Playing select matches at the Stadium of Light, maybe those where the TV cameras will be in operation may also be part of the solution, as it has the infrastructure as well as being at the centre of the city and therefore more accessible to big crowds and away supporters than the suburbs of Hetton-le-Hole.