Having championed the need to move towards a sustainable, academy-led approach for Sunderland for many years, seeing the sensible way in which the playing side of club is being run play out in front of us this season has been welcome, and refreshing.
Lee Johnson certainly isn’t perfect, and it would be fair to say that he’s made mistakes during his short time thus far at Sunderland, but he’s shown adaptability and a willingness to work in a modern system - one entirely different to anything that he’s worked within at each of the clubs he was with before landing on Wearside.
Whilst Johnson was appointed prior to the change in ownership by KLD’s predecessors, it would be fair to assume that the current owner - given the fact he was in talks to purchase the club at the time - had a small part in helping to choose the next man to move us forward.
But, he’s still had to prove himself to the new owner and his Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman, showing that he is willing and capable of working within their boundaries.
Whilst none of us are particularly privy to the inner workings of the club these days, as very little is said outside of official communications, it’s pretty clear that Johnson and Speakman have a good working relationship, and the way that our player recruitment was handled this summer - with the influence of several others, of course, as it would be unfair to only attribute that to our Head Coach and Sporting Director - was impeccable.
There’s been investment into the club’s training facilities, and we’ve improved the pitch at the Stadium of Light - very early into Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ tenure it was revealed that he’d spent around £500,000 on a pitch lighting system that would help to maintain the quality of our playing surface for many years to come.
We’ve given the SoL a much-needed spring clean, and efforts have been made to modernise the club’s hospitality and catering offerings.
These are all things to be proud of - we’re very much a club on the up. Hopefully, the team will continue this season to show that they’re capable of mounting a serious promotion challenge, and all these small improvements that ensure we have the best possible facilities and conditions for the players to perform to their highest capability will have been worth it.
Yet, whilst results on the pitch have given fans cause for genuine optimism for the first time in what feels like forever, off it, I think it would be fair to say that our new leadership team are largely learning on the job.
That’s not necessarily their fault - after all, they’re new to this.
But after a year and a half of hosting games without fans, there’s been a period of readjustment that has seen numerous important issues slip through the net.
The big one, of course, has been around ticketing.
First and foremost, anyone that has used the club’s e-ticketing platform would probably be able to draw on their own experiences to talk about how poor and difficult to use it is - and as someone who is IT-savvy, I can only imagine how much of a ball-ache that must be for fans who aren’t.
The way that the season card issues at the start of the season were handled was nothing short of a farce - I genuinely felt sorry for Chris Waters, the sole point of contact for most fans on social media, who bore the brunt of the majority of the issues and frustrations.
Chris is brilliant at his job and, in my opinion, is the finest Supporter Liaison Officer in the country. He’s a credit to the club and the way he handles himself is incredible.
That said, he’s not a machine and deserves some proper assistance so that he can deal with more than just issues emanating from the ticket office. I wouldn’t say that fixing season cards is necessarily the best way to utilise someone with so much skill and experience in their particular field.
When I mention the issues around season cards, I’m not necessarily talking about the way they arrived, by the way - the fact they turned up in a white envelope wasn’t much of an issue to me - but the fact that some supporters were still waiting to receive their physical cards weeks after the first game was disappointing.
Importantly, the communication around season cards changed almost daily. It wasn’t helpful and it only added to the confusion.
I mean, I do think that more effort should be made by the club in thanking fans who have committed to a season’s worth of football for their hard-earned cash, but I also recognise that when you’re a third-tier club trying to act sustainably and sensibly, you aren’t going to, for instance, get free stuff - books, prints, free access to the Black Cats Bar, etc - like we used to get during the Murray era.
But there have been other, more sensible offerings in previous years that I think they could draw on. Discounted food and drinks inside the ground, perhaps - readers might remember receiving a voucher booklet a few years back that offered supporters all kinds of perks that ultimately encouraged them to spend their cash inside the ground.
Then there’s cheaper corporate hospitality; discount for the club’s online shop; cheaper match programme subscriptions; discounted tickets offered to schoolkids and their families.
I’m no marketing genius, and certainly don’t have all the answers, but there are undoubtedly ways that the club can offer benefits to season card holders that also sees them reap the rewards by, in turn, bringing more money into the club.
Having started very well, I think it would be fair to say that the off-field PR hasn’t been great - you could say the good results have masked some of the other overarching issues.
Our crowds have been some of the best in the country this season, and we have the highest average attendance of any club in the EFL. However, our average attendance is lower than it was in our first season at this level, with an average of just over 32,000 fans coming out to support the lads at every home game during the 2018/19 season.
In that first season at this level, it would be fair to admit that the club did a pretty decent job with their creative marketing.
I loved being a part of changing the old, faded pink seats to nice, new red ones - it definitely made me and many others feel like we were part of the club’s new direction. And yes, whilst they eventually ran their course, the podcasts with the then-owner and Roker Report were big news, and many people enjoyed being given a personal insight into the running of the club. Then there was the Boxing Day campaign which saw us blast the record for a third-tier game, bringing over 46,000 through the gates, and the big push from the club to get fans along to Blackpool on New Years Day, where over 8000 mackems filled up Bloomfield Road at a time when the home fans had turned their back on the club in protest at the ownership of Owen Oyston.
Things at the time felt good, and the club capitalised to try and create a buzz, and make the fans feel a part of the journey.
Right now, things feel even better - and it’d be wise if the current leadership also capitalised on the good feeling in the fanbase more, and used their creativity in the marketing, media and PR department to get more bums in seats.
As someone recently pointed out to me - around matchdays, our social media coverage is intense, but in reality, we’re doing very little in the community and with social goodwill to attract new, younger fans. That has to be recognised.
Our football has improved, our squad has improved, and for the first time since we came down to League One there’s a genuine belief spreading through the fanbase that this is the year we’ll get out of the third tier - so why have our attendances dropped?
Well, I guess COVID is one huge issue - there will still be fans unsure about being in big crowds at the minute, and that’s understandable.
But I have to ask: are we doing enough to attract the casual fans along to games?
How hard are we working with our marketing to get people through the games on a matchday that might otherwise just sit in the pub, or stay at home and watch it on a stream?
You’ll always have your hardcore - but you have to work hard to reach out to your casuals who need a poke and a nudge to convince them to come along on a Saturday.
There are some great examples of creative marketing out there from other clubs in our division, and it doesn’t have to cost you loads of money to hit the right notes.
For instance, I love that Accrington give out home shirts to school kids in the local area, knowing that their goodwill and generosity might convince families to come along to games. I love that Lincoln responded to social media criticism from fans about their handling of their season card issues by sending their CEO out and about delivering them to the doors of supporters.
I’m not saying we should copy these methods, but you have to admit, it’s smart and fans love it. And importantly, being creative with your marketing and going out into the community appeals to youngsters who might not even like football, or come from families who have no allegiance to any particular club.
The marketing and promotion around the Ladies team this season has been frustrating also.
They’ve been treated like an unimportant sideshow, and that’s not how it should be.
I’d say the overall coverage of the team has probably improved since last year - programmes have been produced, the social media account seems more active, and we’ve had a club podcast with the manager in recent weeks - but how well have we marketed season cards, or promoted the fact they’re even playing? And I’m not just talking about social media and website posts, but real community outreach, showing young girls and boys that we have a Ladies team that have high aspirations, where you’re more likely to interact with the players on a matchday than you would with the men’s side.
Here’s an example: tickets for the Lewes game on Sunday at the Stadium of Light went on sale early in the week, but unless you went looking for them on the club’s e-ticketing website, you wouldn’t have known about it because it wasn’t advertised through the club’s channels - not until it was pointed out to them by supporters, that is.
That’s maybe just an accidental oversight, but it also hints at how they’re viewed within the club - it’s something that simply wouldn’t happen with the men’s team.
And look to what clubs like Lewes do - in a tiny town with a small population, they average crowds which closely rival their men's team and has them as one of the best-supported clubs in the division - and they get more through the gates than Sunderland do. They work hard to interact with their fans and make young boys and girls feel part of their club.
Closer to home, Durham Women do a fantastic job of working closely with their fans and creating a real family atmosphere. They have no big men’s team to fall back on, and their supporter base is entirely their own.
With a bigger budget and better resources at our disposal, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Sunderland AFC could and should be doing more through their media and marketing to help build up a fanbase for our Ladies team.
I appreciated the fact Steve Davison came out this week to publicly address a number of key concerns, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all that he had to say.
The club’s offer of one-to-one support for fans struggling with their cashless system is welcome, but really you have to ask why this support was only offered once fans and fan groups kicked up enough of a fuss about it. Anyone could see that there were going to be problems, and that there would be fans unable to deal with their offering.
The ticket office has been shut for most of the last two years - understandable given the fact COVID stopped fans from attending games, but to have kept it closed right throughout the summer and through season card renewal season was baffling. All it led to was a series of issues, frustrations from fans who couldn’t get someone to pick up the phone, and - I imagine - a loss of paying supporters who simply couldn’t be bothered with the chew on.
Similarly, re-opening the club shop around matchdays is a welcome step forward, but it feels like it should have come sooner. The shop should have been open when kits went on sale. Clearly, there’s a push to move towards online sales, but as I alluded to earlier, for some fans - especially younger, new supporters - a trip to the club shop on a matchday adds to the experience.
How many of these small changes have come as a result of fans raising concerns over the club simply acting because they think that it’s for the best, I have no idea. I’m glad they’re noticing their failings on various fronts now, but it does seem to have come a little late.
What’s important, however, is that in the future they recognise these potential issues before pressing ahead with any new initiatives - learn from what mistakes have been made this summer, and ensure that all bases have been covered so that disruption to supporters is kept at a minimum.
Now that we’re coming out of the other end of the pandemic, and now that fans are back at games and spending their money, the club really need to work hard on bringing more fans through the door, and making our club as interactive and welcoming as possible.
It was shown during the 2018/19 season that our supporters respond well to creative marketing when it’s applied, so the recent evidence is there to show that if they focus on the wider fanbase again, they’ll help to build bigger crowds and, ultimately, bring more money into the club - money that can be used to further improve our facilities, hire extra staff, or buy extra players.
Of course, winning lots of games will help too, but I think we’ve got a handle on that!