I don’t know about you lot, but I’ve found the break between games in the last few weeks a bit dull and boring. I went into it in this week’s Editorial, but I have very little love for international football (tournaments aside - those are mint), and all other football turns me off a bit.
Aside from that, though, the club have been active in other areas and in particular, our Lasses team, who have had a brilliant start to the season in the Women’s Championship.
The fact this grabbed my attention this morning got me thinking about how the club actually develop the women’s side of the club steadily over time and how they can pique the interest of fans like me, who like to see all of our sides doing well without necessarily being invested in every single game - and, over time, how they convince us to get along to watch the matches and support.
Some people will never be bothered enough to support the team, and that’s fine - if it’s not for you then it’s not for you. But, not everyone feels and thinks the same and those that are more open minded to it or just enjoy winning football may well decide one afternoon to pop along to Eppleton to watch the team, and if they like what they see they might stick around.
At Roker Report we have some proper diehard SAFC Women fans who live and breathe it and put so much effort into supporting them. They love the team, they love the players and travel up and down the country to watch the Lasses play. Their unwavering support is admirable, and I imagine over recent years it’s been testing as they’ve watched the side ultimately underachieve through no fault of anyone but shoddy, unfocused ownership.
We have to understand that before the WSL (the Women’s top flight) was really a thing, Sunderland were a big player in the women’s game and were responsible for the development of many current and former international stars - so underachievement is relatively unheard of when it comes to the women’s side of the club up until more recent times.
As such, bigger and more wealthy clubs have managed to breeze past Sunderland in terms of the overall shape and development of their women’s side, and the Lasses now have a bit of catching up to do. But, after adopting a hybrid model over the summer which has seen the team go almost fully professional, the results on the pitch are improving and recruitment has been good.
It’s early days, of course, but it appears that Mel Reay is being adequately equipped with the tools she needs to build a proper successful team that isn’t just reliant on recruiting from the local area.
In short, the only way you grab the attention of fans like me is if you’re getting it right on the pitch. They’re winning games and scoring goals, and that’s why I’m writing this piece - they’ve got my attention, even if I’m not tuning into every single game.
Last year when they were losing most weeks and just about surviving from the drop, it was highly unlikely you’d grab the attention of new supporters because, well... who cares about teams who lose every week when there’s no real emotional attachment to what you’re witnessing?
This much was clear when the club failed in their attempt to put on a double-header at the Stadium of Light last summer, a hastily-arranged effort which seemed doomed from the offset. With the men’s side going on early doors against Norwich in a 12:30pm kick off which we lost 1-0, the Lasses then had to wait until 4pm to take on Birmingham City Women, by which point most fans who were pissed off by the loss earlier in the afternoon had sodded off elsewhere and left the Stadium.
By the time four o’clock rolled around, there were less than 1000 people in the ground to watch The Lasses, thus rendering the event an unmitigated failure.
Other clubs elsewhere have shown that despite having a massive following for their women’s teams it is still possible to get big crowds of people along to watch them if the event is properly built, properly marketed and the timing is perfect. Now, had the games been flipped around that day and the Lasses had gone on first, the crowd would have undoubtedly been better but I’m not so sure that it would have been big enough to justify putting it on at the SoL, because the side had no real momentum at the time and weren’t fighting for anything particularly positive. But, if such an event was planned for the future - let’s say, at the end of the current season when the weather is warmer and both teams are fighting towards the top end of their respective tables - things could be very different.
I can guarantee that if the Lasses keep up their current pace and are mounting a promotion push, fans like me and most of you reading would get behind them and support, perhaps even attend a game or two, even if watching Women’s football isn’t your usual cup of tea.
It makes me shudder to mention them, but Newcastle Women managed to attract over 25,000 to St James Park at the end of last season as they pushed for promotion. People who ordinarily wouldn’t attend women’s football got invested in what was going on.
Building a supporter base for the Lasses has to be organic and not manufactured, and that can only happen if the team does well over a longer period of time and does all the right things both on and off the pitch.
I have a little girl and while she’s too young to go along to games now, in four or five years she might pick up my interest in football and want to go along and see the team in the flesh - so, there’s potentially a situation there in the future where I’ll be attending games with her to cheer on the Lasses, and I imagine there are many parents further along than me in that same boat, who have daughters who want to be a part of it all. Those are the fans that really are there for the taking and that the club should focus their efforts on retaining.
It’s early days, but everything we’re seeing seems to point towards them getting things right in the same way the men’s team are, with a defined style of play and winning football complimenting good recruitment — which will all get new eyeballs on the ‘product’.
You never know, you and I might even get along to a game to cheer them on if they keep it up!