On Good Friday, some of my family came along with me to the game against Shrewsbury Town.
They’ve been to plenty of matches in the past and have enjoyed them, but last week, the bug seemed to bite harder than ever, and by full time, the kids were adamant that they now wanted to make it a regular thing.
In truth, my eldest is already a season card holder, but had only been picking and choosing games since fans were allowed back in grounds. The girls are now at an age where they can get more out of going to matches, and although they do have other things going on in their lives, the decision to buy extra season cards was still very quick and very easy to make. The early-bird prices meant they cost just £40 each, but what the club could end up receiving in return could well be immeasurable.
For a start, when the 2022/2023 season begins, I will be buying more refreshments and programmes on matchdays. Seats being filled is never a bad thing, and judging by the noise that followed Nathan Broadhead’s winner, the volume levels will be increasing too.
Crucially, even if just one of them ends up falling in love with Sunderland half as much as I have, the club will be guaranteed years of support. Factor in the prospect of hundreds young fans flocking through the turnstiles, and that will be the force that drives the club forward for generations.
Even if a season card is too much of a commitment, with junior tickets priced at £5 for an individual game (alongside a paying adult), supporters can bring their family along without breaking the bank.
I appreciate that £40 here or £5 there will still represent a lot of money to some people, but comparatively speaking, these prices represent fantastic value when you consider the fact that I was paying more to attend matches as a young teenager, over twenty five years ago.
The powers that be should be applauded for this strategy, but they are not daft, and will know that with so many other competing activities, football must remain affordable in order to thrive.
Doing this is just one positive step, therefore, and if we want to see more families coming to the Stadium of Light, a collective effort will be required. A winning team will always be the main thing that attracts fans to the stadium, but at the top of my own wish list would be a greater effort to clamp down on the foul language that you regularly hear in the Family Zone.
I am not a prude, and I am not just talking about the odd word here or there in the heat of the moment. A lot of the parents in that part of the ground are already regular attendees, so they know the score – you will always get an element of bad language, and for many it was part of the attraction when they first started attending matches.
However, when you have specifically decided to sit in an area designated for kids and families, it shouldn’t be too much to expect other adults to reign it in a bit.
People in the Family Zone can hardly roll their eyes if a young lad or lass is giving it ‘six-nowt’, asking a load of questions and accidentally kicking the back of their seat – different groups want different things from their matchday experience and that has to be recognised and accommodated.
I would hate to think that somebody stopped going because they had been made to feel unwelcome, but this season, for example, I have seen one parent being asked to tell their child to ‘calm down’, simply because they kept standing up. It was ridiculous on many levels, not least because the boy was so short he was not blocking anybody’s view anyway, but if children are not allowed to get excited at the match, what is the point?
One possible, yet understandable downside to making the Stadium of Light a more welcoming environment for young families is that some evening games will see a drop in attendances.
Kids, particularly those that live further away, might not be able to manage being up late on a school night, and I do wonder if something could be done there. Could there be the possibility of discounts, or a one off ‘freebie’, so that if the adult is still going, they could upgrade the other seats and bring an older family member along from a different price band category instead? It might stop the ticket going to waste, and again, if it leads to somebody else being ‘hooked’, so much the better.
There could be any number of reasons why that particular idea would not work, or may not be considered fair to other supporters. Making such offers may require a system upgrade, or could cause more hassle for club staff, who, it must be said, have been fantastic with me recently.
When buying those additional seats for Shrewsbury, and then the new season cards, I was hugely impressed by the standard of customer service I received, and that is another aspect that should be recognised, alongside fair pricing.
I would not want to name any of the people responsible and potentially embarrass them, but at least one member of the ticket office staff at Black Cat House has worked there for some time, and they have all always been top class with me.
Moving about and buying more seats can be a complex process at the best of times, and I am not the easiest to understand over the telephone, either, yet they remain helpful and efficient.
Some aspects of ticketing can be rightly questioned. Limitations with the online ticketing service, and restricted opening hours for subsequent face-to-face interactions do little to ease the pressure in this particular area, and so a decent standard of customer service goes a long way.
Getting prices right, enabling people to make the purchase and then providing them with a welcoming environment once inside will always be important to supporters, no matter how old they are. For me, I’m thrilled to have Sunderland remain part of the family.