As this year’s brain-meltingly long summer of wondering ‘what if… at Kenilworth Road’ fades away, the 23/24 season approaches, and with it all its pre-season joys.
The trips to local non-league sides, fake social media accounts pretending to be ‘in the know’ and of course – like every summer – the traditional kit fume!
Yesterday afternoon, the club announced that the club shop - which has already been closed since 27th June, would not reopen today as planned. The club shop and online store will now reopen on 12th July. For a fifteen-day period, you cannot buy any official Sunderland merchandise anywhere.
Now admittedly an extra week to wait to see those stick-on badges and tacky gambling sponsor [a rant for another time, perhaps] might not be a big deal to some, but once again it highlights just how bad things are in Sunderland’s - recently renewed - retail offering.
For those who are still unaware, although Nike are Sunderland’s current kit supplier – the partnership is managed by its local affiliate Just Sport Group, based in Spennymoor. The deal which began in 2020 has now been renewed until summer 2027. Basically, we aren’t considered important enough to have a direct relationship with Nike, and as such have a deal where we order our kits from their teamwear range and then a modestly sized factory unit in County Durham stick on the Sunderland badges and send them up the A19. When they arrive and their lack of availability, however, is the BIG problem here.
Now in the early days of our partnership with Just Sport, mitigation could be allowed for the shortage of shirts. Factory shutdowns and post-pandemic supplies caused a huge disruption. But whilst other football clubs slowly returned to normality, Sunderland’s shirt availability did not extend beyond the Autumn of the next two seasons. When 47,000 fans made the journey to Wembley for the 21/22 play-off final, the club confirmed there would be no further shirts to be made available for sale: no doubt losing a hefty sum in revenue.
The availability, or lack of, of Sunderland’s merchandise – even since before our partnership with Just Sport – has been befitting of a non-league team. The closure of the stores in The Bridges and The Galleries left Sunderland with no presence on the high street; meaning you can take a walk down High Street West or pop into the Bridges and be able to purchase a Newcastle shirt, but not one of our own. How is that acceptable?
Now with the recent success of our friends up the road, now - more than ever - is a time in which Sunderland need to keep pace and ensure merchandise is readily available.
In the wake of their success, you would have probably noticed more and more Saudi-sympathising colours appearing in our area, down at the seafront and walking around the city centre.
So why the fume this time round you ask, it’s only an extra week to wait. Well… having experienced years of poor service from Just Sport, Sunderland was finally able to secure a deal – commencing 2024 onwards - with a kit manufacturer more suitable than a provider who deals predominately in Sunday league football team ware. An opportunity to strike a deal with a company that would guarantee a supply of kits to sell in profitable periods covering ‘Black Friday’ sales and the run-up to Christmas; and an opportunity for a company to provide a suitable baby, infant and larger size version of our strip that doesn’t look like it belongs on a Turkish market.
And now, Steve ‘I’ll look into it’ Davison has handed the keys to Sunderland’s full retail operation over to Just Sport. In a club statement on the 27th Davison addressed the need for a better retail operation, saying:
Following regular dialogue with our supporters’ groups and the wider fan base, we recognised the importance of improving our retail experience this summer and we look forward to supporting the Just Sport Group in delivering an enhanced service throughout the next four years.
Just eight days later Sunderland and Just Sport failed to meet their reopening deadline of the club shop and online store. A source close to Just Sport confirmed to Roker Report that any delay is the fault of the club and not their own, and although there is currently no evidence to suggest otherwise, another problem arising just over a week into a recently renewed contract does not scream the promise of enhanced customer service.
As a Championship club that has a greater dependency on matchday revenue, not only is the summer period lucrative for sales for us, but it is also an opportunity to further grow revenue from commercial and sponsorship agreements – a major source of income for clubs like us.
In a meeting with the Red and White army fan group on 21st July 2022, when asked about having an outlet in a city centre shop, such as Nike, Steve Davison said:
The club makes a greater margin by selling our own merchandise and we are in the business of making money to invest in the playing staff.
In the same meeting, Lindsay Douglas indicated:
...that she hoped the kit 2023/24 would be received in April and can be put on sale early if required. She also confirmed infrastructure changes to the shop were underway.
So why the delay… and why should the members of any fan group trust the words and failed promises delivered during these meetings? An opportunity to have been selling kits for the past three months perhaps wouldn’t have been enough to finance a move to bring back Ellis Simms, but it would have been something to invest in the playing staff.
So, what’s next?
Well, it’s an extra week for parents like me to wait before handing over a decent chunk of change to buy strips for my children – some will no doubt have already opted for DH Gate - which at the time of this article is already selling a knock-off version of our 23/24 away kit.
But lessons need to be learned. Whilst the direction on the pitch has been an enormous success, Sunderland’s commercial and retail performance has fell way below acceptable standards - and with four more years of Just Sport to come, signs of improvement are a long way off.