Netflix or Blockbuster...

January 26, 2018

“Do you want to be a Netflix or a Blockbuster?” I heard the question asked recently and it struck a chord. For anyone who has lived under a rock for the past 10 years, Netflix started out as a DVD rental business but recognised the appetite for streaming to become a multi-billion dollar business, whilst Blockbuster stuck rigidly to their model and went bankrupt. One embraced change and thrived; the other stuck their fingers in their ears and floundered. That sounds familiar.

 

It might seem an odd comparison, but it got me thinking about our club, as that’s exactly what SAFC have become. We are Blockbuster and we’re paying the price for sticking to a flawed and failing business plan, and are at a crossroads now where we can either adapt or sink. The crux of it is that we’ve been left miles behind, feeding off scraps whilst the Premier League clubs feast on their riches, and we’re failing to deliver what the fans want - a winning team and an enjoyable matchday experience. It goes without saying that results on the pitch go hand in hand with fan satisfaction, but in the absence of the former, the club should be busting a gut to achieve the latter. They’re not, and the atmosphere on matchdays reflects this.

 

Obviously, we’re restricted by our financial plight, and servicing the debt has to come before fancy gimmicks that add no immediate value, but it wouldn’t break the bank to give the ground a lick of paint and tidy up the concourse bars, for example. Paint the concourse walls with iconic images from our history instead of bare breeze blocks, that sort of thing. It’s symbolic, I think. Give us something we can be proud of and people will cherish it. You can’t expect the fans to turn up full of pride and enthusiasm when our once-magnificent home has been left to look shabby and dated by the board.

 

But it’s more than just painting over the cracks, literally and metaphorically. Going back to Netflix and Blockbuster, I was baffled by the club’s decision to opt out of streaming games through iFollow this season. If you believe the official line, the club deemed the quality of the streams to be inadequate, but surely something is better than nothing, even if the stream is filmed from only one camera without commentary?

 

I suspect the club were concerned that streaming games would impact attendances, but I find that short sighted beyond belief. Our attendances were always going to drop this season, just like they have after each of our previous relegations at the SOL. I understand the club can’t be seen to endorse illegal streams, but a forward-thinking business might see it as a positive and turn a blind eye. Think about it, is it not better to have the stay-away fans at least engaging with the club in some way at 3pm on a Saturday, even if that is in the pub or in front of a laptop, than not at all?

 

When Niall Quinn returned with Drumavile, he embarked on a tour of the local pubs and clubs to try to convince lapsed season ticket holders to return to the SOL, but he found that most had simply found better things to do with their time on Saturday afternoons, and preferred now to spend time with their families or take up other hobbies instead. Streaming games on iFollow isn’t going to put 15k back on the gate overnight, but it does keep a chunk of the missing fans in the routine of watching the match and taking an interest in team.

 

It reminds me of the failed fanzone venture. The fanzone didn’t really take off, but it seems like the club have taken the easy option to scrap it altogether rather than adapt and improve it. Think about your typical pre-matchroutine; I’d imagine for most it will involve a warm pub, a few pints with your mates and the early kick off on TV. But the fanzone was essentially a pop-up bar in a cold, windy car park, selling expensive drink with a local band playing in the background at ear-splitting volume. It didn’t cater for customer needs and there are several pubs within a two minute walk offering cheaper beer, more seating and live football on TV. Instead of scrapping it altogether, why not install some outdoor heaters, show the highlights from past matches on big screens and serve up decent, reasonably priced food and drink at the bars instead? Not only do the club have the unique selling point of the location, we already know there is a market there for it that we’re ignoring.

 

Above all else though, if the rebuild is to succeed, we need to start with a clean slate and build from the ground up. We need honest communication from the club, not lies, PR spin and propaganda. Martin Bain gave a series of interviews to the local press in September and October last year that were clearly designed to pull the wool and tug on the heartstrings, for example, emphasising how great our summer transfer business had been whilst we were propping up the league, and reassuring fans not to panic just a week before sacking Simon Grayson. It doesn’t fool anyone and only adds to the feeling of mistrust.

 

It’s no coincidence that our first win, clean sheet and best performance in weeks came after Chris Coleman publicly denounced Jack Rodwell and picked a noticeably younger, fitter and more enthusiastic starting XI. This needs to be the blueprint going forward now, no more wasters or never-have-beens like James Vaughan.

 

Let’s embrace change. No, I don’t expect us to become the Netflix of English football overnight just by picking Josh Maja ahead of Didier Ndong, but it’s about getting the fundamentals right. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got, and that’s misery and failure. We can’t put the past behind us if we're still repeating the same mistakes.

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At the back end of the 1980s, football fanzines began to sweep the country and in 1989 we were presented with a new vehicle on which to enjoy some of this ride – A Love Supreme. ALS was a place we could all go to celebrate and commiserate being a Sunderland fan. Win, lose or draw, the pages of the fanzine became solace for many of us as we stumbled our way through our day to day lives, punctuated by the ups and downs of more match days than any of us care to remember.

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