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Shop talk and new kits, but for Sunderland’s retail operation, questions remain

The Lads will be donning a retro design at home and will be pretty in pink on the road during 2023/2024, but is everything quite as rosy as it seems. Andrew Smithson looks at the complexities of Sunderland’s kit situation

Sunderland’s home and away kits for 2023/2024 have now been revealed, and although the initial response to the new look was broadly positive, some of the other retail provisions continue to frustrate large sections of the fanbase.

While some fans don’t care what they players are seen in as long as they’re winning, there are many others for whom the unveiling is something to look forward to, and when leaked images of the change kit recently emerged, it prompted some strong reactions.

A quick Twitter poll conducted by Roker Report suggested that around fifty percent of fans were unimpressed, but since the official confirmation came out and some clearer photographs were shared, the general consensus has swung somewhat.

Based on a similar Nike ‘Strike III’ template as the new training gear we’ve been seeing since the players returned to the Academy of Light and with similarities to the England men’s first choice kit from the 2022 World Cup, the neon pink shirts are a bit too loud for my own taste, but then again, I’m hardly the target audience anyway!

Change kits often allow for a bit of experimentation and the monochrome crest, purple trim and heavy sleeve patterning are probably aimed at younger fans. Indeed, it says a lot that the four relatives I take to games have already given it the thumbs up.

The colour scheme, which is similar to the one used for our third kit of 2016/2017, certainly stands out and that may have also been a factor when deciding what would work.

Players should find it easier to pick out their teammates during away games and if it helps us to continue our strong away record from last season, there’ll be few complaints from me.

A couple of hours after the change strip was shared, we then had the home version drop, with the shirts featuring the same round neck collar and scooped raglan-type sleeve arrangement.

However, whereas the pink effort is a modern one, the traditional red and white option is being marketed as a throwback to Nike’s first Sunderland strip of the mid 1980s, when the firm first opened premises on Wearside.

They still have offices in the city in 2023, and the location chosen for the latest launch photoshoot was a nice touch.

Taking place on the rooftop of the Bridges Shopping Centre but with an old school theme, it’s a subtle yet clever concept that also included emerging star Tom A. Smith, who’s always proud to showcase his love for the club, and talented County Durham singer-songwriter Elizabeth Liddle.

The shirts feature a white base and a red central stripe, and whilst it’s not a complete copy of the V-necked original- which featured more detailed trim and placed the club badge on the other side of the chest – my own feeling is that it’s a very smart offering.

Speaking of the badge from the 1980s, I know that the club’s in-house designer went to some length to ensure that the old ship crest was faithfully replicated when the retro gilet that Smith is also seen modelling was produced.

Several amended versions were used over the years but the person responsible was keen to get it bang on, having already struck gold with some of his other projects, as well as the ‘Til the End’ campaigns he had the idea for the 2021/2022 home kit – a season in which we won promotion after both strips had also been launched with the help of local music acts.

All told, it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the marketing of Sunderland’s new threads, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Having proudly announced that last season’s kits included recycled fibres and moisture wicking fabrics, there’s no such detail this time around so far, and whilst some are dubious about the benefits of such technology, the features are important in some regards and the lack of information is perhaps connected to wider issues.

Debate about the state of Sunderland’s retail arm has been going on for months, and the strip launches were originally due to coincide with changes being made to the physical club shop, as well as a new online store going live.

This was going to be part of a four-year extension to the ongoing partnership with the ‘Just Sport Group’, who’ve been supplying our kits on behalf of Nike since 2020, and were due to take over the overall running of retail operations on behalf of the club.

However, a last-minute change- the details of which we don’t yet know- brought about a delay in the shirts being released and at present, the club doesn’t have any outlets open for business.

The Spennymoor-based company, who’ve also been offering similar services to Birmingham City and Portsmouth, have also been manufacturing some mini Sunderland sizes in recent seasons through their in-house brand Avec, and with Nike not always providing some kids’ versions, there’s uncertainty here also.

If there were problems with the arrangement, of course it’s better to do something about it now than once things have kicked in, but the situation is unfortunate to say the least and will do little to assuage the worries of fans who’ve previously expressed concerns about stock levels and the quality of some merchandise.

External factors have been blamed previously and may still be having an influence, but with commercial activity being vital to club finances, it would be encouraging if we were to see the situation improve quickly.

One intriguing development, therefore, is that on the same day the first ‘Just Sport’ developments were announced, the club also confirmed a new deal with Utilita Energy, who’ve signed an initial two-year agreement that’ll see their logo adorn our junior replica shirts.

They’re already a familiar name at the Stadium of Light, with their logo having featured on the rear of our shirts between 2018 and 2021 (their replacement, Vertu Motors, will continue to occupy that slot for next season), and with current main club sponsor Spreadex Sports barred from being displayed on children’s strips due to gambling restrictions, the formerly blank space on the front has now been taken up.

Albeit a minor one in comparison to wider discussions about gambling sponsorships in sport, this is one of the issues some fans have with Sunderland collaborating with a bookmaker. Just like the Avec/Nike question, youngsters wanting to look just like their heroes may not appreciate getting a strip with different branding on.

On the other hand, there’s presumably a monetary value to this opportunity and one upside is Utilita’s community activity.

They’re involved with several other sports teams already, and as part of the relationship their official charity partner, Utilita Giving, will be looking to offer support in areas of Wearside to those struggling with fuel and food poverty..

They’re also driving an environmental initiative called ‘Football Rebooted’ and hopefully the Eastleigh-based firm deliver more than somebody else we know of with links to the town did before their recent departure from here. Had we seen more actions and fewer words around some of their merchandising proposals, perhaps things would now be flourishing.

Some queries will doubtless become a little clearer when the change kit goes on sale on Wednesday.

Sunderland’s shirt sales are always impressively high no matter what the design and no matter how they’re being sold, but now we know what they’ll look like, it would be good to get some clarity on what’s going on underneath.

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