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Sunderland Ladies v London City Lionesses - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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What is keeping Sunderland fans away from watching the Lasses at Eppleton?

“Irrespective of whether you follow the Lasses or not, it is a shame to see Sunderland women's performances and current position not correlate into increased attendances,” writes Charlotte Patterson.

Photo by Jess Hornby - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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, some of us do, and some of us would like it to do well to make it a much more tenable and enjoyable sporting experience. Something I’m sure the players would as well.

At Sunderland Women’s most recent home game against Birmingham, there were 400 in attendance.

Why was that? The comparison game is never a fun or good one, but why is it that Durham Women who play in the same division and aren’t affiliated to a men’s club get just shy of 1000 fans each home game, and why is it that Newcastle Women who are a division below got 4172 fans at one of their recent games against Stourbridge?

And that is exactly why I took to social media to ask the question of what keeps fans away and what, if anything, could be done to encourage people to come. (a big thank you to those who did respond and provided helpful and thoughtful comments!).

The Location

Without a shadow of a doubt, this was the one consistent comment brought up to me when I asked the question. Eppleton Colliery is just not a viable location for a majority of people for one reason or another.

The location of Eppleton sits in Hetton-Le-Hole, seven miles out from Sunderland, thirteen out from Durham and even seven miles from Seaham. Something which was touched upon by many fans is that unfortunately Eppleton is just too far away from Sunderland, and that where possible, plans should be made to look at more viable options closer to the city centre.

Naturally with this, conversations have been had about the lasses playing at the Stadium of Light, particularly with a number of other women’s football teams in the Championship playing in their male counterparts' stadiums, such as Sheffield United, Birmingham, Reading and Southampton.

But it raises the question as to how viable this is given the men play on it too and the condition that leaves the pitch in, especially when we regularly hire our stadium out for various singers, artists and just recently the news that the Stadium of Light has picked to be a venue for the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup has been announced.

For me though, unless you’re going to get even 10,000 or 15,000 fans watching Sunderland Women at the SoL, it is just going to feel very empty. Whilst Eppleton isn’t perfect, it’s cosy and close to the action and players.

Sunderland Ladies v Birmingham City Women: Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Ashley Allen - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Parking and accessibility were frequently mentioned in the comments, with people stating that trying to find somewhere to park near Eppleton is incredibly difficult, particularly given how quickly any spaces in the ground fill up and then there are no designated parking areas nearby after that. It’s a case of finding spaces on housing estates and roads that don’t have double yellows, but then you’re left to contend with ‘disgruntled’ locals complaining about the traffic and volume of cars.

Even if the club were to look at extending the current car park, it just would not be feasible due to the limited space around the ground, with three of the four sides surrounded by housing.

Given the recent bus strikes that halted the North East, unless you drive, live close by or can afford the expense of taxis these days, then ultimately are you aren’t going to try and navigate attending a game. Suggestions have been made around whether the club could put on bus/coach travel from the Stadium of Light direct to Eppleton as well as other well supported areas in the locality.

Some have mentioned about the club looking to create a new smaller ground, one which could perhaps 3,000 or 5,000 fans around the Stadium of Light area that would be suitable for both the women’s, women’s U23s and men’s U21s to play at. I don’t have enough knowledge to say what Greenfields or Brownfields sites are available near to the ground, if any at all. Then naturally the biggest discrepancy and consideration would be how the ground was financed, who would front the cost, and most men’s fans would understandably prefer that money to be used on themselves given the majority of money generated into the club comes from the men’s senior team.

It is certainly something the club need to think about, particularly given the tremendous rise and form of Sunderland women recently. Rumours have it, that should Sunderland Women manage to get promoted this season, they would in fact be dismissed from entering the Women’s Super League on the basis of Eppleton not being to their ‘required’ standard. What a cruel and devastating blow it would be if the lasses do the unprecedented, only to be rejected on that basis.


Cost of living

Each passing year, the cost of living crisis seems to get worse and worse. Even those who are reasonably comfortable financially may have to have second thoughts on whether to pay the gate entry fee, as well as possible travel costs and in ground purchases, to decide whether they are worth funding when gas, electric, water, food and fuel continue to rise.

You only need to look at Roker Report’s annual Soup Kitchen appeal and their social media to have it evidenced just how much people are struggling with the cost of living. Even those who work are having to turn to food banks just to make ends meet and rely on candlelight and thick blankets to keep heating and electricity bills down.

Credit does have to be given to Sunderland Women for trying to make matchdays as affordable as possible where permitted. At the lasses final home game of the season, they made all tickets 50% off meaning adult tickets were £5, £3.75 for concessions and £2.50 for students and U16s. There was an incentive to wear a Christmas jumper to receive a free hot drink at the Café - not something to be sniffed at when you consider hot drinks around around £2 a person and with an attendance of 400+ on Sunday gone, that's a £800+ cost to the club.

Naturally, this isn’t a Sunderland problem and affects clubs across the whole country as all of us are affected by rising costs. But it may certainly be a deterrent to some. The costs that the club do charge for Sunderland Women’s games are reasonable and coincide with what other Championship clubs are charging.


Promotion and marketing of the event by the club

Many fans make their matchday plans weeks in advance, including travel and childcare arrangements.

Some fans commented that they weren’t even aware of Sunderland Women and their fixtures 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, where they can park and costs.

Statements were made that Durham Women do an excellent job in promoting and advertising themselves as a club, via a constant social media presence, newsletters being sent via email, and interactivity from players online on both their personal accounts and the club accounts. You need only look at their social media recently to see that despite putting tickets on sale for their FA Cup game against Manchester City on Monday at 6pm, they sold out all tickets within 20 hours. Naturally of course it's helped by the fact that their opponents are a star-studded WSL side, but many comment that they wish to see the club do more and not just online.

It would be good to see some of the men’s players promoting the women’s team by simply retweeting their clubs or players' socials, 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 their fixtures. Although I must say, this has greatly improved and we regularly see both accounts promoting and cheering on each other, as well as the likes of Pierre Ekwah for the men’s team interacting and attending quite a number of lasses home games this season.

There is always room for improvement and development in terms of marketing, advertising and promoting football, but I do have to say that Sunderland Women have improved in that regard tremendously this season via the engagement and media team. None of the above is intended as a criticism, but more so points to consider.

Aji Alese and Pierre Ekwah pose with Sunderland fan Katie Hume at the Women’s match
Katie Hume

“The interest just isn’t there”

Last but not least, one factor that 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 and World Cup success.

The way I see it is that the club is a business and it has several 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 men's, women's 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.

Women’s football is continuing to grow irrespective of whether you watch it or not. The last thing Sunderland want is to be left behind whilst other teams in the local area going to make strides. Not only is it frustrating for me to see as a women’s football fan, but as a Sunderland women’s fan, I wish to see this team and their fantastic results, form and spirit correlate into positive attendances for them. They deserve as much for exceeding all expectations and continuing to keep pace and be a thorn in other championship sides, despite our hybrid model and ‘seemingly’ lack of investment.

Durham v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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