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Sunderland considering Stadium of Light double-header! A chat with Alex Clark of SAFC Women (Part 1)

WSL ambitions, attendance targets, ideas, and overall strategy... After a successful season, we caught up with Lasses General Manager Alex Clark for a good old chat.

Photo by Chris Fryatt

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Roker Report: Welcome Sunderland Women’s general manager Alex Clark, who has joined us for a bit of a chat. Obviously, a lot of people will have seen the announcement that the club is rebranding to Sunderland Women, but first of all, Alex please introduce yourself...

Alex Clark: Yeah, Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening. I just wanna start off by saying, just a massive thank you everyone for all your support this season. It definitely hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players, the staff. So first of all, thank you for that.

RR: We’ve got some great fans, a lot of the people who listen to this every week, people who we see at the match and this is just fans talking about the team that we love to watch.

Alex, you’re relatively new to the club, you joined this season because the general manager role, if I’m right, is a requirement of tier two and tier one clubs, but you previously worked for the Durham FA, is that right?

AC: Yeah. So each club has to abide by a license essentially, and the general manager role is one of those stipulations that every club must have. Previously, I was in referee development manager at Durham FA.

I did that for just over two seasons and part of that work was through the pandemic, which was particularly challenging as, as you can probably imagine. And then I took the role at Sunderland in September and missed the first two games. I was at the first home game, but missed the Coventry game. I started the following Monday, straight into the deep end at Crystal Palace. Since then we haven’t really drawn breath to be honest until this point.

RR: Yeah. It must have been a bit of a whirlwind, obviously. This isn’t your first role actually in women’s football as well?

AC: Yeah, so obviously through Durham there was a lot of work within the women’s game. Particularly around increasing referees and obviously covering women’s games as well. But in terms of club football, yea, this is the first club role.

Sunderland v Sheffield United: FA Women’s Championship Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

RR: So how does the club kind of view the season that’s just finished? There’s been a lot of talk like mission accomplished, but are there other things that you, Mel, and the board might think could have gone better?

AC: Yeah, I think on the whole, we were broadly pretty pleased. To be honest, the remit was to stay in the division. I think Mel, the rest of the staff, and the players deserve a lot of credit for that.

Obviously we’ve seen what happened at Watford and Coventry, with Watford going down the last day of the season. So to have a little bit of breathing space after being confirmed safe was nice. There were some internal target sets in terms of points, some targets in terms of goals scored, goals against, and I think we we’re broadly there with those.

In terms of off the field, again, pretty happy. But like everything, there’s lessons to be learned. We are currently going through the review process already that started. That sort of started once when we were safe really, but it is a continuing piece of work over the next couple of weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, as unless you finish in first place, there’s room for improvement. There’s an opportunity to get more fans in the stadium, an opportunity to create more revenue off the field, things like that, but on the whole, for a first season back at this level with our young squad, with what they’ve gave and the staff have gave, we really couldn’t ask anymore.

RR: I think we all recognise the achievement is phenomenal really, and something that we try to celebrate as much as we can. As you say, we have one of the youngest squads in the league, with so much potential, who haven’t experienced this level of football before.

So, there’s been a big change with the change in name. And you can talk a bit about that...

AC: Yeah, the rebrand as SAFC women was sort of in the making last summer before I joined. But in terms of the FA rules, you’ve got to apply by the summer for a change of name. And as you can imagine, with the end of last season and COVID, and in terms of the application to join the Championship, it was one of those things that just simply wasn’t done in time.

So I really took it up from there. Me and Mel spoke, Steph spoke to some of the players, and there was a few options on the table as to what we could be doing. Should we stay “ladies”, should we go to “women”, and we could have went down a different route? So for example, London City Lionesses, so they don’t have women or ladies in the name. But generally the consensus was to go with “women”.

The reason being it kind of gave us the opportunity to have that brand refresh. It also is then promoting the inclusivity. I know if you ask some people the possibly not bothered, whether it’s ladies, women and quite happy for it being changeable, but I think there’s a real feeling, amongst some people that women was the right way to go.

And then I suppose the third reason was that it’s obviously we play in the Women’s Championship, it’s the Women’s FA cup, it’s the Women’s Super League. So it keeps everything tied in quite nicely. And as well, if you then look at inside of the club, it’s the men’s first team, it’s, it’s the boys academy.

Sunderland AFC Ladies v Manchester City Women - WSL Photo by Ian Horrocks/The FA via Getty Images

RR: I also wanted to ask about the wider strategy. Kristjaan Speakman spoke about it on the club’s podcast earlier in the season, and it’s been mentioned now and again in fan forums.

Where are you with it? And if it’s been put to the board, what’s been agreed, and what are the main points of that strategy?

AC: In terms of the strategy, Kristjaan had had a sort of a skeleton blueprint if you like, obviously coming the season, my remit really has been to then flesh out that strategy, present at the board, which, which has all been agreed. I was act the supporters collective meeting the other night presenting it to a selection of fans.

It’s an evolving piece of work, I think staying still with any any strategies dangerous because you achieve some targets early, no doubt with the stretch targets we might fall short on some.

Just to give you some of the key highlights, really, we’re looking at kind of five key strands. We’re looking to create a plan of success through a long sustainable business model.

And the five strands are; true financial sustainability and maximize our revenue opportunities; put a real emphasis on local recruitment and promotion of our young players; the embracing of data and technology - and that’s been really big this season in terms of our GPS data, our analytics, and that’s been really key some of the analysis that we’ve done to achieve some of the results.

Then fourth, player and coach development - I think it’s probably been really clear this season that all the players have developed from from the start of the season to the end. But it’s not just about the players it’s about all the coaches as well. So Mel and Steph are part of the FA’s initiative to develop female coaches and coaches in the female game, which is excellent. They’ve had some great opportunities out of that.

The fifth is around the community engagement and supporter experience, and I think this is probably the strand at the moment where I’ve had the most challenges, if I’m honest. We’ve without doubt made some mistakes in this area, I think the London City Liononess game early on was probably one.

What’s been restricted with COVID hasn’t helped, but I think we’ve put in place immediately, once we’ve been allowed, we’ve been able to have mascot and flag bears and things like that at the last four home games, which is also then really boosted the attendance.

And I think there’s, there’s clearly work to do on all five areas, but I suppose they’re the, they’re the main highlights, really those five strategic themes.

Photo by Chris Fryatt

RR: So where what’s, what’s the end goal? What should we be expecting like the target for the next year, the next three years to be in terms of, of on the pitch, the playing success element of it?

Obviously, the better we do the better players we can attract, more supporters will come, and the more money potentially that we can win in prize money and in sponsorship.

So where do the club want to be at the end of next season? Where do they wanna be in three years' time?

AC: We’ve got quite a clear roadmap. Phase one of that roadmap is very much ensuring that we’re fit for purpose in terms of identity, in terms of structure, values, and behavior.

At the moment, if you compare to other clubs in terms of dedicated women’s staff, so we don’t have a dedicated media person, if you like. So that’s one of the clear, clear aims really to get that first element, right. Then as the men’s team progress, there should then be more funds coming through the club to then progress the team up the leagues.

I think if you look quite organically at what other clubs have done, if you take out the likes of Manchester United who’ve kind of come all the way through Tier 2, every team has kind of improved by two or three places season each season.

So that’s kind of next season’s aim really, we finished ninth this year, can we improve by that three places? The following season we can improve by three places and then again and again until we’re getting to the point where we’re competing at the top end for, ultimately, promotion to the WSL.

Now we haven’t really put a time limit on that as such. Um, but that’s, that’s the overall target. Getting back to the WSL.

But it’s kind of in line with the men’s team, so as they get promoted, the women’s team get promoted together, with the ultimate aim of Sunland being the elite team in the region in both men’s and women’s. That is the overall long term target.

But in the short and medium-term, it’s just progressing up the Championship, getting ourselves really solid in the Championship, and then building from there.

RR: You mentioned one of the strands of the strategy is financial sustainability. The championship is a real mix of different models and some teams that are fully professional at the top and at the bottom of the division this season.

Obviously, we’ve got players who’ve got other careers as well, but we’ve also got youngsters who we want to keep at the club, who we don’t want to be taken by a team that can offer them a good salary for playing football full time.

So in terms of that financial sustainability, what does that mean for contracts for these footballers?

AC: So in the, in the immediate term, we’ll still be running a part time model. If you actually look at this group of players that we want to keep together, the average ages 21, so you’ve, you’ve got a lot, the younger per layer still continuing their education. So a lot of going off to university next year, um, some going to colleges next year.

And then if you look at the older players, a lot have got established careers, which they wouldn’t want to give up and you also potentially lose them due to their careers. So if you actually look at this group of players that we want to work with and continue with at the moment, going full time wouldn’t be the best option.

In terms of financial sustainability, because as I say, it all needs to link together in terms of revenue opportunities in terms of getting more fans through the gate.

I know in the past hybrid models have been mooted, but I think if you, if you speak to our coaching staff that then becomes potentially difficult around ensuring that players are, um, sort of peeking at the right time, getting the right training in getting the group environment right. And things like that.

So pretty much in the, in the, in the mediam term its a part-time model, building as, as we are doing, and then looking in the future, to move that that full-time status that would be required anywhere for the WSL. So that’s where we are with it at the moment.

Crystal Palace Women v Sunderland Ladies - Barclays FA Women’s Championship
Emma Kelly of Sunderland and Neve Herron of Sunderland
Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

RR: The FA has a strategy for women’s football that envisages two fully professional leagues in the next few years with two leagues of maybe 14 or 16 sides. And obviously, Barclays are bringing the sponsorship in from next season, you’ve got a new TV deal coming up probably two years after that.

That strategy also includes an ambition for crowds in the Championship well, over a thousand on average, and WSL well above that. And how’s that gonna work with Eppleton, which is obviously a small ground.

So how does the, how does your strategy fit in with the wider strategy that the FA has?

AC: The league’s current requirement is to achieve an average of 400, we’re currently running an average of 505, so we’re above the leagues average. Next year, we need to try and get that to 600, as you say with a view 1,000 fans by 2023-24, and 6,000 in the WSL.

As you can imagine at the moment Eppleton, not capable really of holding crowds of 6,000. We do have a lease on Eppleton, and obviously the men’s Under 23 play there as well. It’s one of them where as a club we will constantly review, really. There’s potential options of the Stadium, there may be options elsewhere.

At the moment with Eppleton. the trust that owns it are really welcoming of, really supportive, really supportive of what the club is doing. The team, ultimately, they feel comfortable there, they’ve played there for a number of years and the team really do say Eppleton is their home.

But we aren’t naive to the fact that eventually, with the way the women’s game’s going and the FAs strategy, that we might need to look at something else in the, in the future.

RR: Yeah, I mean, that strategy was written before some of the quite staggering attendances that we’ve seen across Europe... at Barca obviously with over 90,000, Old Trafford with 25,000, and Parc de Princes, I think it was 35,000 the other week. And then obviously you had St James’ part where they had 22,000 in the other day.

You look across our league you’ve had 5,000 at Bristol City and similar at Sheffield United; Durham, close to 1,500; and above 2,000 at Watford and Lewes, who only have a town of 17,000 people.

Why do you think we haven’t broken that thousand mark, even when we played at the Stadium of Light and even once we’ve introduced free entry for kids and season cardholders? What do you think’s holding that attendance back? What is it that those clubs are doing that you are going to be doing in the future?

AC: I think it’s difficult to say. I think it’s one for the supporters if you like, in some respect, to say why they are coming or not. And so one of the things that we are all looking to do is to put out an end season survey the, to our email database, to those that come to the games, and find out what they like about it, why they come. And to those that have been to a game and then never come back, and to those that have never been to a game at all, to really determine the reasons why.

I think in terms of our, our club promotion, it could be better without a doubt, ifwe’re being, if we’re being honest about that. But what I’d also say at the same time is I think the club has in certain areas put a lot in.

We’ve had a Season Card “bring a friend for free” scheme - only one person took up the offer for the asking County Cup game. The same game we gave over 400 tickets away for free to grassroots clubs, but it was then probably the worst game of the season in terms of weather.

We’ve linked in with the supporters’ branches and the BLC, who’ve been amazing sponsoring us. We’ve been on Sun FM radio, and we’ve done emails before and after the games. And obviously, we’ve had the season cardholders and under 14’s go free.

So I think there’s a lot of initiatives the club put in, and I think we need to kind of work out really what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, and I think that really comes down to some honest, honest feedback from supporters.

One thing we’re currently exploring for next seasonis the the doubleheader - to run a women’s game and a men’s game on the same day at the Stadium of Light. Now, there is a lot of moving parts to this in terms of the safety aspect, how you turn the ground round, from a women’s game to a men’s game or a men’s game to a women’s game, or vice versa, there’s issues over brand assets, how you turn that round.

But I think if we can pull that off, it will be, it will be quite, quite something. I think it’ll be really good for football in the region.

I’d also say is that if you look at the likes of Man United, for example, they get over 20,000, I think, for the Everton game. The following week, they then only had 1,500 when they went back to Leigh Sports Village in their next home game.

So I think as well, what we need to look at is firstly, these one off showpiece games getting bigger tens to that, but then it’s also, how do we retain those and how do we keep them coming back week on week, um, and support the team throughout the season?

Photo by Chris Fryatt

RR: We were just discussing the doubleheader idea in our groups and we were much happier with a game before a men’s game than after a men’s game. But it’s definitely one worth exploring!

It’s worked and cricket but I don’t think it worked quite as well when they tried it and rugby union, with disgruntlement about the timings and catering, stuff like that.

So yeah, there are lots of moving parts there, but we hope it goes well.

To be continued...

In the second part of our interview, Alex Clark talks about the club’s owners, our recruitment strategy, and explains how SAFC Women is run behind the scenes.


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