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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final

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Opinion: Sunderland AFC’s marketing “requires a cultural shift”!

Neil Graney, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Durham University, casts his eye over the state of Sunderland AFC’s pre-season public relations.

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

I don’t know about you, but I still watch the Wembley highlights once a week. The club is finally on an upward trajectory, and each time I watch it I hear or see something new in the crowd. It makes you appreciate the importance of the fans that day, and the role they played towards the back end of the season.

In 2019, we registered an attendance of 26,610 against Portsmouth in the first leg of the play-off semi-final – our lowest attendance of that season. This year, the first leg attracted a crowd of 44,742. That’s a stark difference of 18,132.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League 1 Play-Off S-F Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’d argue the main reason for that increase in crowd numbers was Alex Neil’s ability to instil belief in the players and, in turn, make the supporters believe too.

It wasn’t just the lengthy unbeaten run towards the end of the season, Neil had done a brilliant job of deflecting much of the criticism away from his players, steered clear of negativity (despite the best efforts of some local journalists), and championed the role of the fans.

His management of the entire football club was superb. In fact, I’d go as far to say he invigorated the club in the same way Roy Keane did – only Neil did it with an imbalanced, knackered, unfit squad, without the ability to make any changes.

I, like many, went to Wembley full of confidence. Everything just felt different. Despite the usual Trafalgar Square antics on the evening prior to the game, fans lining Wembley Way on the day were in great voice. Again, it all felt very different to previous visits.

Yes, I was hungover, but the noise on kick-off had me welling up. The belief was palpable in the stands. The most dominant play-off final display followed, and yeah, full-on tears of joy on the final whistle did too! Finally, we were promoted. Enough of this third-tier shite.

As a Sport Business academic, I followed Alex Neil’s words and actions very closely last season. It’s something I will write about another day, but in short, Alex Neil led some clear transformational change, which ultimately changed the entire culture of the club in three to four very short months.

This wasn’t just about dropping tired, inexperienced players.

This was about exceptionally clear communication. A leadership style that fits the club and the club’s predicament upon his appointment. A leadership style that suits the region.

As a fanbase, we want direct action, clear communication, no bullshit.

In the recent past, this has meant Reid, Keane, McCarthy – all very popular with the fans, all achieved promotion.

So, Alex Neil had done his job and, as I write, it seems he’s still in the party mood, watching Elton John at the SOL.

Since the season ended, I have also been interested in the marketing of the club’s success, and its rightful place back in the second tier of English football. Kudos to those responsible for the ‘till the end’ / ‘just the start’ campaign – very simple, yet clever marketing communication. I was also relieved to see the season cards go back on sale, just days after the Wembley win.

A month on, and the club seems to have sold close to 30,000 season cards – an uplift of 5-6000 from last season.

We’ll be soon in the territory of market saturation. While it would be nice to see crowds the size of that at Wembley each week, it’s just unrealistic. For a club of this size in the Championship, 30,000 should be expected, given the numbers in League One, but these numbers should never, ever be taken for granted.

The club hasn’t done a great amount to sell more season tickets and, strategically, you’d argue they don’t need to. The groundswell of positivity, the end of trips to Accrington, Fleetwood, etc, and something we are all familiar with – hope.

Hope that the club’s upward trajectory continues.

Fans want to be a part of it again.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League 1 Play-Off S-F Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I applaud the club’s decisions on season ticket prices, and the continued opportunity to pay by Direct Debit instalments. While COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions have offered some pent-up demand for sport, and the entertainment industry in general, it’s also cruelly robbed people in the region of more disposable income.

The North East was already one of the poorest socio-economic regions in England pre-COVID, and early research shows the disparity between the north and south continues to increase. The rising cost of fuel, energy and food means more people in the region are choosing between heating or food.

Therefore, football or no football isn’t even a question some can entertain.

While season card transactions continue, I would argue it's time for the club to focus on its relationship with those fans. It’s true that results generally keep football fans happy, but it doesn’t guarantee more fans, with more money. Just look at Manchester City.

It’s time for the club to focus on relationship marketing campaigns, which place emphasis on a stronger bond with all fans – whether they buy corporate, season cards, match day tickets, or simply follow the club from afar.

Too often sports clubs take their supporters for granted. They assume that fans will ‘keep on coming’ regardless of what’s going on. For certain fan types, this is true, but academic research shows many fan types are fickle in their affiliation to any one club, or indeed, sport.

They may connect and consume club information, but they won’t necessarily spend any money. They may not have any money spare!

At the other end of the spectrum, you have prosumers. Those consumers (fans) who feel they can and want to play an active role in the success of an organisation/club (see Wembley effect, or dedication of away fans and fanzine groups).

The club has shown an increased willingness to communicate with fan groups in recent times, but I’m not sure what else they do to improve the relationship.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Final Preview - Sunderland - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

For example, a lengthy fan survey dropped into my email box some time ago, and some positive changes were made as a result, but action since seems piecemeal – a common problem for fast-moving, changing organisations without a fully committed marketing strategy.

Each year, a good friend of mine and fellow Sunderland supporter, Mark Bradley, delivers a guest lecture to my Sport Business students around fan engagement. It’s always incredibly inspiring due to Mark’s previous work and connections in industry. Mark identifies 14 touchpoints where football fans and clubs meet (online and physically), before, during, after and as part of each transaction/fixture.

This is where the relationship is built. This is where the club needs to improve.

Through internal analysis and fan consultation of these touchpoints, evaluation is needed, new bold strategy is required and vitally, communication of subsequent changes is crucial.

At the same time, the club needs a better appreciation of consumer trends. Mintel, a leading marketing intelligence agency, identifies ‘trend drivers’ that lead to an understanding of how and why we consume the way we do – what we need, and what we place emphasis on, as consumers.

I will pick out some relevant ones, which are of increasing importance in the entertainment industry and relate to the touchpoints.

Consumers place emphasis on community, heritage and individuality

Look how well Sunderland fans travel, and the strength of its online community and fan groups. Look at the pride they take in their heritage, its region’s mining heritage, for example. Look at how they look after their own, for example, the RR annual soup kitchen appeal.

Look at the pride they take in their individual role in the red and white army. What does the club do? What could they do better? Do they engage in local communities in the way that the Foundation of Light does, for example? Do they reach out to fans most in need?

Consumers place emphasis on Equality, Ethics, Localism, Sustainability

No football fan should be priced out of football, but they often are. Let’s work on relationships that close measures of inequality, not increase them. Football clubs are often the centre of their local community – how can they reach out and work with local producers, local providers, local people? How can the club become more sustainable (think single-use plastics). What solutions could save, or even make the club money?

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One - Stadium Of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Consumers place emphasis on Budget, Convenience, Premium, and Quality

The most important trend, perhaps. We all know football operates as a crude business based on capitalism, but this is where clubs CAN NOT take fans for granted, nor exploit fans. Increasingly, fans aren’t willing to pay the going rate for a pint of shit beer, on a freezing concourse, from a plastic ‘glass’.

Fans are increasingly critical of replica shirt prices and their ‘quality’ – often we see fan-designed shirts be more popular than what fans actually get. We are also seeing an interesting demand for retro or heritage-type replica shirts. But how many clubs are listening?

Fans will always seek out a local Wetherspoons or a local boozer before a game, knowing the value and quality will be better. For a club that places such emphasis on frugality, there is a huge contradiction in what they offer fans as part of their match-day experience. Despite the introduction of EPOS systems, service is still slow, value is poor, and the product is often typical, mass-produced, and stale.

Successful marketing makes it easy for consumers to spend money, and difficult to say no.

Often, it is actually really difficult to spend money at SAFC.

I understand decisions on the club shop opening hours were made on data insights. Big data is important, and critical to marketing decisions, but also leads to marketing myopia (where you lose focus of what your consumer needs/wants).

This summer should/could be a yellow brick road of gold leading to the SAFC store, but insisting fans buy online for the majority of the time (and get charged fees) for the privilege isn’t in keeping with typical retail trends in football.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

I may have generated more questions than answers here, but this isn’t a quick fix. This needs transformational change; it requires a cultural shift. It requires the marketing equivalent of Alex Neil to lead a reimagination of how the club should operate off the field, in the way he quickly changed the way his team would operate on it.

It also requires total commitment – a long-term strategy built on the consumer touchpoints and relevant trends, to best service the best fans in the land. It also takes resources – due to historical mismanagement and COVID-19, the club seems to be operating on a skeleton staff and data.

This isn’t a viable, long-term approach to building and sustaining a customer/fan base through marketing efforts. Marketing in sport is often about narrative, about people, their experiences, and emotions – you don’t get that from data.

Come on Sunderland, make us believe you truly care about us – look after us, and you will benefit immeasurably as a result.

Further Reading


Talking Points: Formation curiosities, set piece struggles – and three massive points!


Matchday Musings: Back-to-back wins for the lads with all three points at home vs Millwall


On This Day (4 December 1954): A win for Sunderland, but real success alludes the Lads

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