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Now Sunderland’s ownership is settled, is it time for a boardroom refresh?

With the KLD-Sartori alliance now firmly in charge, could the club benefit from an injection of diversity in its executive team?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Sunderland Association Football Club Limited now has three shareholders - Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Juan Sartori, and Stewart Donald. As KLD’s statement last week makes clear, the governance of the club is unaffected by Methven’s departure from the scene and the change in shareholdings within the remaining “ownership group”.

Donald remains a silent partner, and according to Companies House, the club’s board of directors remains as follows:

  • Steve Davison - the Chief Operating Officer
  • Dave Jones - Non-Executive Director
  • Igor Levin - Lead for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion
  • Kyril Louis-Dreyfus - Chairman
  • Maurice Louis-Dreyfus
  • Juan Sartori
  • Patrick Treuer
  • Antonio Vumbaca

Although they’re a very multinational bunch - Swiss, French, American, Italian, Uruguian, and British - they’re almost all men from the ranks of the global political, financial, and legal elite.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This status brings gravitas as well as access to capital and technical expertise that has a value that is hard to quantify and suggests a professional and serious approach to business that bodes well for the overall financial governance of the club in the long term.

In terms of commercial and business backgrounds, we know that the Louis-Dreyfus brothers’ family business is part of the “big five” multinational firms in the global agri-food industry and that KLD as a business degree from Harvard University whilst his twin brother has experience as a DJ.

As chairman and majority shareholder, KLD is there to set the culture and the overall strategy of the organisation, and be involved in the key commercial and footballing decisions such as hiring and firing the Head Coaches, Sporting Director, and the Chief Executive.

Sartori, as is well documented, heads Union Acquisition Group which tends to invest in the biotech, food, and energy sector with his father-in-law’s vast fortune being derived from the fertiliser industry. This is in addition to his role as a Senator for the centre-right National Party in the Uruguayan Parliament.

The pre-candidate for the National Party of Uruguay, Juan... Photo by Mauricio Zina/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Davison is an engineer who was a consultant for the global project management firm Atkins, who describe themselves as being “in the business of making the world’s infrastructure work better. Using data-rich, virtual and collaborative technologies, Atkins helps clients to make better decisions for complex projects.”

These are all primary and secondary sectors where business-to-business relations are key, where deals for large volumes of the world’s raw materials are made for billions. As they’re primarily focused on meeting the basic human needs for infrastructure, food, and warmth, the value of such commodities will rise and fall closely with the simplest laws of supply and demand.

They are not, however, particularly consumer-focused - they sell things on to those companies that actually make consumer goods or provide services to the general public.

Levin, Treuer, and Vumbaca are all highly experienced lawyers with links to the main shareholders and are apparently there to provide advice and guidance to the ownership and the other directors when it comes to compliance and commercial law.

FBL-FRA-LIGUE1-MARSEILLE Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP via Getty Images

Levin’s long-standing relationship with the Louis-Dreyfus family, in particular, is clearly a vital link in the chain of command with a day-to-day involvement at the club. He has considerable experience in dealing with football-rated contracts through the family’s time at Olympic Marseille and is now tasked with the implementation of the Premier League’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) standards at Sunderland AFC.

Only the non-executive director - Sunderland fan and Sky Sports presenter Dave Jones - whose role on the board is to provide outside oversight and scrutiny, offers the club a different and independent perspective.

He’s very knowledgable and well connected within the world of English professional football, which I’m sure makes him an invaluable source of links to players and other clubs. But, given the relative powerlessness of non-execs in UK corporate governance, his impact on the strategies and decisions made in the boardroom compared to those with shareholdings will always be limited.

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The value of diversity

We know that Steve Davison is in charge of all of Sunderland’s day-to-day commercial operations and, like Kristjaan Speakman on the football side, is a big fan of the role that data and technology can play in providing the club with a competitive edge and a sustainable long-term future.

There are clear parallels between the kinds of business-to-business wheeling and dealing relating to scarce commodities and big infrastructure programmes - where hedging of future risk, complex contracts, and long-term conditional payment plans are the norms - and the transfer market for footballers.

The kind of people and systems needed to use data to find and utilise the untapped value in a marketplace, or to plan long-term solutions to complex problems, will have important inputs into using the limited resources of the club effectively in a competitive marketplace where the opposition are all trying to achieve the same thing.

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Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Structuring mutually beneficial deals to hire scarce, high-end, highly mobile talent to perform specialised functions. That’s all meat and drink for the men we have running the show behind the scenes at Sunderland AFC.

But a football club, particularly in its relationship with its customers and its community, is not like a normal business. Emotion and sentiment play too big a role for the ordinary rules of market economics to prevail.

Loyalty and enthusiasm are some of the hardest to measure indices that drive demand and engagement in football, but they can be generated with clever marketing, good public relations, and - crucially - a great experience in all aspects of what the club does.

As Neil Graney described well in his piece for Roker Report last week, our fans are much closer to that of the “prosumer” - the people who both produce and consume a product or service - actively and vitally involved in creating the entertainment that they consume. Indeed, it's that unique quality that the crypto bros invading our game seek to take advantage of and monetise.

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The closest analogous business to football is music, but there are few club nights or bands that tens of thousands of people will follow literally throughout their lifetime. That said, the modern football club should think of itself as operating in the brand-building media space as much as it is a sporting institution.

Email surveys to existing customers will provide baseline data about what fans think, although their usefulness is limited by both the questions set and the self-selectiveness of responses.

The tools are there for the board to use to understand the nuances of the needs, concerns, and desires of their existing audience through the Supporters Collective with which, thankfully, the current regime has engaged consistently and regularly.

But I am sceptical about whether the club is currently doing enough to reach out to those sections of the community that do not currently flock to the Stadium of Light or Eppleton CW on matchdays in great enough numbers - women, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, University students - and find out why and what might bring them towards the club.

Without a fan representative on the actual club board, and without a supporters’ shadow board of the kind that Liverpool has created, we cannot know the content of their discussions.

It could well be that, given the span of generations in the room, there’s a great diversity of opinions and perspectives offered on any and all topics that come up for debate, and that there is significant “cognitive diversity” within that group of eight rich white men.

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However, from the handling of communications around the initial takeover deal that brought KLD to the club to the opening hours of the stadium club shop, many supporters suspect that there’s a distinct lack of creativity and customer focus from those in leadership positions at Sunderland AFC that smacks of “group-think”. Supporter Liaison Officer Chris Waters is too often left single-handedly dealing with a variety of issues, where ensuring supporters are properly looked should after be a core business function with its own dedicated team.

Data, we are told via the Supporter Collective, is why the shop hasn’t been open other than on matchdays and why it has been impossible to buy a 2021/22 Sunderland home shirt for many months. The inability to buy our red and white shirts in the sports shops around the region is, quite rightly, a source of embarrassment but is also risking the loss of a generation of kids.

The untapped demand is - quite obviously - there within the city and the wider fanbase globally. The queues reported at the club shop sale this Saturday, with end-of-range stock flying off the shelves, are only one indication of that. As a friend told me earlier:

The amount of people saying “shall I get that for such and such”. no one ever does that when online... There were families in there today spending big chunks of cash. I spent £40 and all I wanted was a pair of shorts. Keep it open and people will spend.

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Despite inflation being at a 40-year high in the UK and a cost of living crisis the likes of which many of us have never experienced, people are still willing to put any spare cash the way of their beloved football club.

Yes, people are out there looking for a bargain, but the current feel-good factor at the club is not something that will be seen in the historical data from the last five years, and neither will be the future and emergent trends that the club is yet to capitalise on at all.

Let’s take, for example, the fact that a significant proportion of Sunderland’s fanbase is female, and women’s football is a rapidly expanding part of the national and global sports market with viewing TV figures up 300% in the last year. We have a fantastic pedigree and a great setup on the football side, with some of the best young players in the country still being produced by the club.

Since the departure of the club’s Financial Director Angela Lowes to Lancashire Country Cricket Club in March 2021 (one of only two women ever to sit in the club’s boardroom), Sunderland AFC had an entirely male-dominated team sitting around the top table.

Whilst this may be reflective of the general dominance of men in both the football industry and the upper echelons of global finance and law, it cannot be sustainable in the long term if the club is to compete with the biggest and best clubs in England over the next decade or so.

Yet, last season, supporters could buy precisely no merchandise for the Lasses, the players weren’t involved in the kit launch because you couldn't buy men’s replica shirts in women’s sizes, let alone the Women’s Championship version of the club’s home and away shirts, other than in a one-off end-of-season “match-worn” shirt auction.

It is undoubtedly the case that in League One there were significant constraints on the club’s ability to invest - not least the fact that Donald and Methven had 39% of the club shares and therefore of the liabilities, and it may well be that there are plans that have yet to be implemented that will see big changes on the retail and fan experience side.

But I think this example, amongst many others, betrays a lack of insight and foresight from a group of men who have been running the club for almost 18 months, and that this could be significantly improved by diversifying the leadership group off the pitch.

A 2020 paper from the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance by Jared Landaw of American activist investing firm Barington Capital Group LP sets out that achieving a company’s commercial vision requires a variety of perspectives at a senior decision-making level:

To improve cognitive diversity, we recommend that boards recruit gender, racially, and ethnically diverse candidates who, in addition to improving the diversity of the demographic characteristics of the board, enhance diversity on two additional levels: first, by adding new professional backgrounds, skills, and experiences that help meet the company’s strategic and operating needs; and second, by introducing new views, perspectives, and approaches to problem solving.

An opportunity now presents itself to the wealthy, ambitious, cosmopolitan young Harvard graduate who chairs the board and owns the majority of the club to introduce new people from different backgrounds into new roles that will support Davison in the delivery of a great fan experience for everyone who follows the Lads and the Lasses. We don’t need tokenism - appointing one woman from a similar demographic will as the eight men will not work.

As the club grows, so does the size of the task as well as the number and range of commercial opportunities, which will require a cultural shift to meet effectively. There are well-qualified people from customer-facing retail, media, entertainment, and other football businesses who could bring new perspectives and new skills to the club to drive forward the public-facing parts of the operation.

Now he has control, a refresh of his executive team through an injection of different people could further boost our chances on and off the pitch.

Sunderland AFC Ladies v Manchester City Women: WSL1 Photo by Ian Horrocks - The FA/The FA via Getty Images For The FA
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