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Rover’s Return: Can Sunderland reach out to the local area?

There are a few grumbles about how the club operates off the pitch, but would the return of an old idea help address those concerns?

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

If the rumours are to be believed, Sunderland have already made a strong start with their transfer plans for next season. I think we can all agree that football operations have taken some massive strides over the last couple of years and these links would seem to back that up, but that other aspects of the club still appear to be causing consternation.

There’s been a couple of letters printed on the Roker Report website recently from fans that are unhappy with the commercial set up.

The availability of merchandise, plus an inability to get through to some departments are regularly being brought up, and it does lead you to think whether these areas could be improved. They are tricky issues to get right of course and I wouldn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it would be nice to believe that solutions are out there.

Trade and communication trends have changed over the last couple of decades and physical shops or offices are perhaps not always going to be cost effective, particularly with overheads continuing to rise.

The Stadium of Light’s location means that having something substantial in the city centre may not be the most appropriate either, but I do feel some sort of offering would be worthwhile – perhaps it could be explored whether a small concession once the new train station is open would be a good focal point for visitors or those in a rush?

Better still, having something a bit more flexible could widen the reach and take the club to the people rather than the other way round.

When the Roker Rover was launched in 1990 it was seen as a new way of thinking and helped get SAFC out into the community, and if that idea could be tweaked maybe to reflect current patterns it would possibly help meet the needs of fans.

A double decker might no longer work for instance, but if say Vertu Motors or one of the club’s other sponsors felt able to provide some sort of mobile unit or van I could see it working.

I know things are not always as easy as they seem to arrange. I imagine that permissions and insurance would need to be obtained for a start, and employee welfare/timetabling would have to be thoroughly considered, but if Sunderland were able to make the arrangements and advertise where the vehicle would be, a regular tour of the coalfields and strongholds could make interaction a bit easier.

For a lot of supporters, their only visits to the city are on matchdays after all, so if they are better connected it would hopefully make them feel more inclined to stick with the club and also take the pressure off those working back at the Stadium of Light.

For example, somebody put off by postage and packaging or needing to quickly try something on before buying could nip out and make a purchase. Ticket arrangements are easier when sorted face to face too, and with some club shop staff already trained to use the system at peak times a ‘one-stop shop’ linked up with the main databases that also carries a select range of popular lines or offers click and collect facilities may cut down on the queues, hold times over the phone and email bounce backs.

Sunderland AFC Ladies v Chelsea Ladies FC : WSL 1 Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

With funds and other pressures having an impact, the easier it is for people to hand over their money the better.

Not everybody wants or is able to do things online and whilst I understand why doing things that way may suit the club in some regards there is an argument to say that if done properly the benefits would outweigh the negatives.

Spend money to make money as they say; if somebody can pick up a ticket they will in turn want refreshments from the concourse, and if you get a mobile shop in front of people at popular events or parts of the region where there is footfall they’ll be impulse purchases made without a doubt.

There is a popular food market coming to Keel Square and High Street West for instance, and in the warmer months the seafront will be heaving. Although the Stadium of Light has a great location relatively speaking it is not quite central enough to pick up passing trade so why not go out and make it happen instead? Houghton Feast or the Durham Miners’ Gala are two more events that spring to mind but there will be many more, and when you have big tournaments or leagues at the local football hubs they are going to be packed with young footy fanatics – sell them some stationery or small keepsakes and get them hooked on Sunderland.

Eppleton too, there’s another one; it is the home of Sunderland Women and the U21s and yet people watching matches there cannot buy any merchandise. A transportable outlet opens these potential streams up and with any luck, strengthens bonds with the public. There may well be factors why it cannot happen, and I don’t doubt that as somebody looking from the outside in and with little commercial experience like myself could have missed something obvious, but on the face of it, I hope it has some merit at least.

Seeing the club shop opening hours returning to normal last year was a positive move; the parking is free and the staff in there have always done a good job, so it certainly serves a purpose. In terms of the quality of the products I’ve rarely had arguments either, or not ones that are attributable solely to us at least (worries about pricing, mass production methods and capitalism in general etc would have to be part of a wider discussion) so I do not have the same gripes as I see from others.

I have been fortunate enough never to have had to return a top because it shrank or whatever, and because of the work I do and where I live, I am able to drop out for a bit and wait in line at Black Cat House should it be needed. Things such as this, and the fact I am relatively tech savvy, mean I am unlikely to ever have much cause to worry myself but I can imagine it is not the same for everybody - and empathise therefore when in some circumstances it drives a bit of a wedge.

One thing I might not agree with the majority on though is the issue of the club only selling replica kit through their own channels; I’d rather the lions share of the profits were retained but get the impression that many would like to see Sunderland making things available through other retailers. It is not something I think is necessary – to my mind it would only be a problem when you cannot obtain stuff at source. That is when disgruntlement should really kick in, so let’s see if we can get that bus on the road!


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