It is safe to say that there has been a lot of negativity, frustration and questions being asked of Sunderland Association Football Club in the last few weeks. Whilst performances on the pitch for the men’s team have generally been woeful at best, it appears that the same can be said off the pitch.
Naturally the news that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus only owns 41% of the club had sparked a lot of distrust and dissatisfaction amongst the fanbase, leading to most of us wanting more answers on how things are being run behind the scenes.
Supporters groups asked the right questions at the Structured Dialogue meeting last week, allowing the club to respond and provide further comment on a range of topics, including Sunderland Ladies.
Here are the excerpts from the minutes from the meeting regarding the Lasses:
Updates of strategy, targets and timetables for achieving targets
Alex Clark, Sunderland Ladies General Manager will attend the next meeting. The aim for this season was to stay in the league. Steve Davidson knew this season would be a challenge after the late notification of promotion. The Ladies are broadly on track. The club are pleased with player progress and with the first year on the pitch.
Discussion around improving attendance for home games
SD [Steve Davison] is disappointed with attendances at the Ladies’ games. Revenue spent on advertising has not translated into higher attendances, but SD recognises more could be done.
Improving promotion of matches, streaming of matches, advertising women’s game
SD said limited resources have to be carefully managed throughout the club. Games are currently not being streamed but could be in the future if engagement increases.
Another issue, Michael Laidler said that due to current covid protocols at the games, the league has not permitted mascots and ball carriers this season. This has limited engagement with local schools and grass roots teams. This will return as soon as these protocols are relaxed to encourage younger fans to attend games. Investment at Eppleton has seen improvements and more will be needed. SD hopes to have a double header of a men’s & women’s game at the Stadium of Light in the future. There were plans to have a double game this season, but as covid protocols differed at the time between EFL League One and the FA Women’s Championship this wasn’t possible.
I find it hard as a Sunderland fan to read through these minutes and not comment on an apparent lack of effort, particularly regarding promotion and advertisement of the club.
If their advertising strategy hasn’t worked, they need to consider how and why it works elsewhere. There is nothing about Sunderland’s fanbase that stops them from engaging with women’s football other than the effort, attention, ambition, and profile it is given by the club’s hierarchy.
In other respects, the board have make excuses up in a bid to protect themselves, which is itself quite farcical. Seeing as it has been well documented this season in social media that the Lasses have had ball girls at their games, what is actually preventing them from doing more grassroots engagement?
Again to reiterate, mistakes may have been made and improvements are possible. But just be upfront and honest about the situation; obfuscation only creates more distrust.
It is hard to not compare ourselves to clubs around us. Especially, when you look at the level of marketing, advertisement and promotion done by fellow Championship and regional club, Durham Women.
Despite only being founded in 2014, the club have already established themselves as one of the best in the league in terms of engagement and advertisement. Their presence on social media is a great example, from their numerous daily tweets, photos, videos, messages from the players, information regarding games and tips from players.
On match days, they post how to get to the stadium, parking, transport and any other information you may need on the day. When you arrive in the ground, there is loud music playing, a stall selling merchandise, food and drink vans, grassroots sister clubs representatives, players and families are always there in the ground and play at half-time (yes, despite the covid-protocols that seem to have prevented community engagement by Sunderland AFC), they have motivated volunteers, proper security, an announcer who gets the atmosphere going.
It is difficult not to enjoy a Sunday lunchtime out at Maiden Castle watching Durham.
Now we also see, Newcastle women receiving a big push and bounce from their new ownership. Getting over 2,700 fans to attend a cup game against Ipswich the other week, having the board members meet with the team and players, having the owners watching the games and supporting them vocally online.
Since Ellis Short left, I have never seen any of our owners show any interest in the women's team whatsoever. That is, if they even know we exist.
When a rival club seems to be doing better at advertisement and marketing than you when they are two leagues below you, is extremely worrying. Again it is difficult to not compare ourselves to others and should remain focused on what we do as a club and team. But, there are genuine fears by some Sunderland fans that we will be left behind.
Whereas when you compare it to Sunderland, the atmosphere is just flat, information regarding the matchday is limited, there is barely any engagement with the fans both on social media or at the ground. It pains to me to feel that way about a club I care about dearly and I will always continue to support the lasses, but something has to change.
Attendances are likely just as low as they were when Sunderland were playing in the National League and I honestly don’t believe attendances are low due to the results. If there is anything we know about this fanbase, it is that we are loyal, despite that being questioned at times by bigwigs in suits.
We have discussed the topic of advertisement and engagement numerous times amongst ourselves and on recent Roker Report podcast, where we referred to it as a chicken and egg situation. We are not so pretentious and deluded to realise that it is difficult for Sunderland to invest money into the Ladies if they are not getting anything out of it. But we also know that the returns in women’s football are to be found further down the line.
Naturally of course, the men’s football team takes precedence as it is the main source of income for the club. But, how can the current situation improve without any investment, promotion or marketing. At present, the board of Sunderland AFC give the impression that the Ladies are an unimportant distraction at best, or an inconvenient irrelevance at worst.
In this day and age, where social media is so rife and is used and trusted more than word of mouth. Sunderland need to do more to promote themselves to their targeted demographic, or perhaps look to expand that demographic.
This isn’t about “forcing women’s football” onto people and some would like to say, but it is about letting people know that there is a Sunderland Ladies team, that they play at Eppleton in Houghton-le-spring and that if you’re interested, here are the things you need or want to know.
When you see the likes of Durham Women and Newcastle Women doing more in terms of promotion and marketing, especially with the latter being in the fourth division of women’s football, it is difficult not to feel frustrated as the club looks to stagnate and ignore an obvious problem.
We’ve seen and heard people talk about Sunderland Ladies, but now it's time for some action. The comments made in the minutes don’t inspire any encouragement whatsoever, as we have heard it time and time again. They speak about what’s been done, but never about what they want to achieve.
Action speaks louder than words. We see the club acknowledging issues, but no comment or plans have been shared regarding how they are going to improve things and when by.
Perhaps, it is something we are not privy to, and there are plans in motion and a clear outline of steps to be taken with achievable targets and timeframes in mind. But from the outside looking in, it is hard not be disgruntled and frustrated with the silence.
This is a club that receives our undying support across all areas, despite back to lack relegations and failed attempts at promotion for the men’s team, despite the women’s team being unfairly and unjustly relegated from the WSL to the National League. We still turn up. We still support this team.
We still pay money to this team in terms of tickets, season passes, merchandise or match day programmes. We still write about this team. We still talk about this team. Does all of that, not warrant some clarity or transparency.
In my full-time occupation as a nurse, we have to abide by what is known as ‘Duty of Candour’, which is basically where you hold yourself accountable for mistakes you have made, detailing what has happened, being transparent with the patient and family and what you are going to do to make things right. We understand that mistakes are made, we are human after all.
But there comes a time when a mistake becomes a habit and unfortunately we have seen this repetitively with the women’s team.
I have never been more proud to be a fan of Sunderland Ladies, as despite the lack of support they receive from higher up in the club, the likes of manager Mel Reay and the players, wear their hearts on their sleeve and give their all for the club.
We don’t have unrealistic expectations, we know that we aren’t going to bring in star signings earn immediate promotion, but what we do expect is that at the least the basics are done by the club to build women’s football on Wearside, and at present they simply aren’t.