I’ve sat in the North Stand at the Stadium of Light since it opened and over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the season ticket holders who sit close to me.
A few are in their sixties and over. Many have had the same seat for years, have been going to games for decades and have put their life, soul and probably most of their wage packets into the club.
With that in mind, it’s been heartbreaking to hear some of them saying they won’t be renewing next season.
One man in his seventies has attended games since he was fourteen and explained that “It’s just too hard nowadays and I can’t keep up with it”.
He won’t be renewing.
Digital ticketing aside, the stadium going cashless has left this set of fans feeling lost.
The club may think that a cashless system has been adopted by all fans now, but there are some - and I can only speak for our bar in the north stand - that don’t buy a thing. They’ve gone without their usual pint or cup of Bovril because they don’t have a bank card.
OK, this may be a small minority of fans so their contribution (or lack of) isn’t seen as a major monetary concern for the club, but it adds to the feeling that they don’t matter anymore.
I witnessed confusion and panic at the Stoke City game after the club’s digital ticketing announcement, which didn’t include the option of a physical ticket. People were irate at the mixed messages they’d heard and were showing each other their phones to prove theirs won’t be compatible - so what could they do?
The scoreline, and the fact that more items had been thrown down from the upper tier, caused the disappointment and confusion to turn to hurt and anger.
Then it was on to Sheffield United at home, when no word had filtered through to them that it might be possible for you to keep your card.
It was freezing, and these are hardy souls- diehards, in fact- who were sharing stories at half time about how long they’ve been supporting Sunderland and the reasons they’re giving up.
The fans I’m talking about are a minority, so maybe the club are happy to take a hit on losing this revenue. The modern football world of digitalisation, with no front-facing staff to speak to and customers being forced to purchase tickets or merchandise online only is a sterile one.
It’s just not Sunderland AFC, the fans or the city, and not 100% anyway.
No one would argue that we need to move with the times, but we must find a way to keep it accessible for those who struggle, before we lose them.
My main point here concerns people of an older generation, but we can add other fans such as those with learning difficulties or supporters who quite simply struggle digitally.
At the time of writing, there’s been no instruction or explanation of how physical cards for those who want them will happen, and when it’s announced, they’ll doubtless do it via email and social media, which the fans it impacts most likely won’t see anyway.
So, what of our Sunderland AFC, the community club and the family club?
I fear we’ve come to the end of an era and it leaves me feeling very sad.