Sunderland AFC Opinion – A price freeze on season tickets is essential

Sunderland revealed last week that a price freeze on season tickets for 2022-23 would be 'unlikely' - Graeme Atkinson explains why this is a bad idea for the club

Times like these do not look favourably upon the current custodians of the Black Cats – any of them.

Sunderland AFC’s ‘pursuit of excellence’ has traditionally been viewed as an endeavour worthy of praise. However, we have sadly all seen it develop into one of ignominy. Certainly, with last week’s events unfolding as they did, we seem embarrassingly as far away from this claimed ‘destination’ as ever.

Indeed, now we know the artists formerly known as Madrox are still looming large, clutching their collective 59% share, there seems little encouragement for those seeking a crumb of positivity.

A quick thumb through the remaining dour headlines reveal a fourth season in the third tier (very likely a fifth), a campaign once again in the midst of imploding, and a squad not fit for purpose and due in part to the temporary nature of it, in need of resetting in the summer.

Nothing about this could be described as anything approaching ‘excellent.’

Nevertheless, here we are. It is in this moment that the club seems to see fit to begin laying the groundwork for a season card price increase – of course they do.

Season Card Price Freeze Unlikely

According to the minutes of the Red & White Army’s latest dialogue with Sunderland AFC, COO, Steve Davison believes “a price freeze is unlikely.”

This even being a prospect may already outrage some supporters; others may believe it is an inevitable outcome for a business, like a great many others, recovering from the effects of a global pandemic. Yet, taking into account the specifics of the club, even the most sympathetic of voices might struggle to justify the rumoured price hike.

Let us first happily state that Sunderland AFC’s season card prices are the lowest of the so-called ‘big clubs’ in League One. According to reports from June 2021, the club was charging £440 for their most expensive tickets, compared to teams like Sheffield Wednesday (£495), Charlton Athletic (£575), Ipswich Town (£561) and indeed even middling-sized Wycombe Wanders (£495) and Oxford United (£519).

Yet, like a great many things within this football club of ours, the devil is almost certainly always in the detail. Context is not only key it is crucial to understanding why a price freeze on season cards is essential.

Fans should not bear financial burden alone

Fans in the ground are a financial imperative for clubs in the shadow of League One, where the lights of TV revenue fail to shine as brightly. When Sunderland fell from the Premier League they recouped £100m for finishing bottom alone. According to the club’s last recorded accounts for the year ending 31st July 2020 its entire turnover was just £29.2m. That is the order of magnitude by which we have plummeted.

Simply put, against this backdrop the club need bums on seats.

But the burden of Sunderland AFC’s financial prosperity should not fall exclusively on fans. A loyal group undoubtedly, but who, it is fair to say, will not be able to compete with the billions of the Louis-Dreyfus empire nor the additional billions of Sartori’s own personal wealth. This, at a time when supporters like ourselves clack through the turnstiles each week, while navigating our own financial challenges derived from the current climate. We might have more passion perhaps, but almost certainly less financial clout.

A price rise is unconscionable when judged against stark facts of Sunderland’s levels of ‘income deprivation’.

According to ons.gov.uk of the 316 local authorities in England, our city ranked 23rd most ‘income deprived’. The Government’s own definition of ‘income-deprived’ measures those people who are out of work and those that are in work but who have low earnings according to relevant means testing. As such, those other clubs referenced above are offering ticket prices based on many factors but presumably also commensurate with local indicators. Certainly, if we take Sheffield Wednesday as an example as they are listed 61st and Wycombe 249th according to the ONS.

In a city where football is its lifeblood, it should be accessible to all. We can all agree on that, surely?

Let us not also forget that when many of us were furloughed during the early period of Covid-19 and were worried about our financial futures, the club’s own directors had not long since given themselves a whopping 81% pay rise. This was also at a time when the very existence of Sunderland AFC appeared to be on the brink and reportedly a £9m loan from FPP was needed to keep the lights on. We were given assurances from Madrox at the time the story emerged that it was instead for investment in the Stadium of Light’s infrastructure.

While we are in the mood for remembering, let us also recall the small matter of the £20.5m fabled parachute monies. A sum, which enabled Madrox to purchase the club in the first place and, thus far, has not been fully repaid. If a cash boost is needed, why not start there?

Do the morally right thing

There is, of course, one other reason, which should ensure supporters wishing to return next season do not see any price increase and that is the moral one.

Having witnessed the club at the lowest point in its history, 24,000 fans stood steadfast, purchasing season cards to loyally support the team. The Stadium of Light has enjoyed an average attendance of around 30,000, surpassing many crowds at Premier League grounds and topping those in the EFL.

Such commitment has not gone unnoticed. Louis-Dreyfus stated in his letter introducing himself to supporters:

“Throughout good times and bad, you have been the one constant that this football club can always rely on. That support should never and will never be taken for granted.”

Now is surely the time for our devotion to be given some recognition and reward, especially at a time of emotional and financial cost.

If times like these do not look favourably upon the ‘ownership group’ one simple gesture of keeping season card prices frozen would certainly be a start.