Before I get into the thick of this article, I would like to preface it by saying that I don’t write about Sunderland Women and women’s football to force it down the throats of people who simply have no interest - if you don’t like it that is fine, and completely your own choice.
But, there are some of us that do, and some of us who would like it to do well to make it a much more tenable and enjoyable sporting experience.
That was what I imagine the club were attempting on Saturday, but unfortunately that was not to be when around 36,000 fans who were in attendance for the men’s game against Norwich decided not to hang around for the women’s game against Birmingham.
Now that 730 announced attendance is disputable, as I am unsure how they were able to count that number considering some fans did in fact stay after the first match, but I could see from being there in person that the turnout was poor.
Why was that? Why is it that there was a higher attendance for Sunderland Women at a pre-season friendly game against Nottingham Forest than at the league game on Saturday?
And that is exactly why I took to social media to ask the question of what went wrong at Saturday’s double-header, and what should’ve/could've been done differently (a big thank you to those that did respond and provided helpful and thoughtful comments!).
Sunderland fans! I’m going to write a piece on yesterdays double header. Naturally it was a big disappointment, but I want to hear from you why it didn’t work, what could’ve been done, why you didn’t stay (no judgment), should the women played first etc?— Charlotte Patterson (@kirbyhazard) August 28, 2022
Let me know below #safc
Time between matches?
This was the most common answer from fans.
The gap was simply too long for those to wait for another game of football to start. Particularly given the fact that for most fans this would have meant a potential eight hour day and possibly even longer for those travelling from further afield.
Lots of people with young families in tow found that the gap was too much to ask of their children. It’s hard enough to keep them entertained, occupied and to sit still even for one game, let alone two - and with an hour and a half wait in between.
I don’t know the ins and outs of match day proceedings and operations, but logistically, it was probably as quick as it could have been done by the time the men’s game finished, the teams cooled down, press statements/interviews were done, the men were done in the changing rooms, the grounds staff repairing and preparing the pitch, the lasses warming-up and, of course, the match starting.
Have the women play first
One of the possible reasons for the poor attendance may well have been due to the fact that the Lads lost their game against Norwich, and some commenters suggested that changing the schedule so that the Women’s team played first could have potentially increased the attendance.
Whilst the Lads performance was encouraging, it was in no doubt a frustrating result. Had we won the first game of the day, perhaps the feel-good factor may have encouraged some to stay longer.
If the Lasses had played first, their game might have been seen as something to start the day with, rather than an afterthought. Naturally, this would also negate the risk that mood prior to the women’s game being impacted by a bad result for the men.
Entertainment, food and activities
With an hour a half gap, fans were sat twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to keep them occupied. While people could leave the stadium and come back, enticing people out of the pub after they’d had a couple of pints to pass the time was always going to be hard.
Some fans suggested that the club could have made more of a spectacle of the occasion, looking to emulate what others have done with great success previously. They could have brought in local bands like Sunderland fans BigFatBig, for example, to entertain people during the intermission.
Inviting local businesses, street food outlets, local breweries, sweets vans, merchandise stalls selling both men's and women’s kits and other products would have been an attractive incentive, as would have been meet and greets with some of the men’s and women’s players, (although they did have local hero Jill Scott there for selfies with supporters, this was not promoted in advance).
Maybe something to fill the gap in terms of an outside fanzone, music, pop up bar n food stalls. Accrington Stanley have a great one ! I’m sure local businesses would jump to be involved .. doesn’t have to be expensive… could actually make money for the club— joanne youngson (@JoanneYougson) August 28, 2022
Promotion and marketing of the event by the club
I thought the promotion of the game was pretty poor, and all done at very short notice.
Many fans make their matchday plans weeks in advance, including travel and childcare arrangements, so by the time the club officially announced the double-header it didn’t give people much time to sort things out.
Some fans commented in the thread that weren’t even aware of the double-header until game day and, due to the limited information out there on the structure of the day, some were not clued up on the kick off time, whether or not they had to stay or could leave and come back, how to get tickets, and other factors.
Both the men’s and women’s social media accounts did very little to explain how the day would work - only tweeting out links to the website on a couple of occasions. It certainly would have been beneficial to see provide more information and reminders to people that a double-header was going ahead.
It would also have been good to see some of the men’s players promoting the whole event by simply retweeting the club, putting out a tweet or video themselves, or adding it to their Instagram story for people to see would have helped to raise awareness of the fixture.
Wider Issues at the club?
Another possible factor was the off-field frustrations and debacle around coach Alex Neil leaving the squad 24 hours before the game to have talks with Stoke City.
Fans understandably felt aggrieved and betrayed by the coach leaving after seemingly no warning.
There have also been other grievances, such as administration, tickets, communication from the club, ownership, transfer business, the club’s overall philosophy and the role of Kristian Speakman.
Add in a loss against Norwich, and this may well have been what broke the camels back for some fans and took away any potential appeal of staying on for the women’s game.
Double header weekend?
Although I am pretty anti-double header after this weekend, something I have thought about is whether or not it would be better to market a double-header over a weekend, as opposed to two games in one day.
In January 2023, Sunderland Men play a home game against Swansea on Saturday 14th and Sunderland Women are scheduled to have a home game against Durham on Sunday 15th at Eppleton.
Perhaps there is scope to either have it as a double-header weekend with the men playing at the SoL and the women still playing at Eppleton, or have it as a double-header weekend with both teams playing at the Stadium of Light across the two days.
Slight side note:— Charlotte Patterson (@kirbyhazard) August 28, 2022
I think they should see if Sunderland Women can play at the Stadium of Light on 15th Jan against Durham.
Market the hell out of it, promote it, gets lots of fans in, big derby game etc. https://t.co/rqREXk9283
The interest just isn’t there?
And last but not least, one factor which I feel many people will simply point to is the fact that there is little to no interest in women's football in our city - but I don’t think that is the case.
I do think there are new potential fans out there for the club to engage with. Other clubs do seem to garner increased interest, especially on the back of the Lionesses’ Euros success.
The way I see it, is that the club is a business and it has a number of different but related products; its various football teams.
Just because some people prefer one product over another - in this instance, most still want to watch the men’s team and not the women’s team - doesn’t mean that the club can’t promote or market the other product. It still may be very attractive to some, even if that is not currently as many people as its traditional big product.
For me, I’m a fan of Sunderland AFC as a whole, be that the mens, womens or U23 sides. I might not always get to games, I might not always watch them, but I always want all aspects of the club to do well. So the club should ask itself the following questions:
Why is it that Durham Women continue to break records in terms of attendance, interest and selling out derby matches?
Why is it that local rivals Newcastle Women managed to attract a crowd to St James Park of over 22,000 for a game against Alnwick and over 1,500 at Kingston Park against Stockport on Sunday?
Why is it that women’s clubs such as Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa can have an increased sale of season tickets by 254%, 249% and 108% respectively?
All in all though, whether or not you care or are interested in Sunderland Women, Saturday should definitely be seen as failure by the club.
I only hope that those in charge at Sunderland AFC pay attention to the fans comments and reflect on what could be done better if this kind of event is ever done again, and certainly look at alternative means to promote interest in Sunderland Women in general.