Supporter Engagement at Sunderland
Hello Chris, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Sunderland?
“I am the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) at Sunderland AFC, it is a role that was introduced by UEFA in the 2013/14 season. An SLO is a club employee responsible for building bridges between the club and its fans. SLOs communicate fans’ opinions to a club’s board or senior staff members, and also liaise with stewards, police and counterparts at opposition clubs for every match.
Do you have a strategy for engaging with fans?
Engagement with fans is key for every SLO. I hear from many supporters on a weekly basis. We have set up several supporter groups at Sunderland AFC to give every supporter an opportunity to communicate with the club. These include a group for our official supporter branches and a group for all disabled supporters. We meet with these groups on a monthly basis to discuss any ideas they have to improve the matchday experience and their feedback is shared with the directors and senior managers to see if it is possible to implement them going forward.
What is the Nathan Shippey Sensory room?
The Nathan Shippey Sensory room is a purpose built area inside the Stadium of Light for supporters that that have sensory needs. The room has various sensory equipment including a bubble tube and communication board as well as a great view of the pitch from our North Stand, so supporters using the room still feel they are part of the crowd.
How did the Nathan Shippey Sensory room come about?
The idea and concept for the room came about after meeting Peter and Nathan Shippey in the 2014/15 season. Peter got in touch with the club to inform us that he had brought his son Nathan to a game in the North Stand but after ten minutes into the first half he felt uncomfortable sitting in the crowd due to the noise of supporters. Nathan asked his Dad to go home because of this and they missed the rest of the game.
I met with Peter and Nathan at the next game and we spent the next few matches looking for a suitable area for Nathan to enjoy the game. He was uncomfortable in all open stands due to the noise. The only areas Nathan was settled and able to watch the game was in the Black Cats Bar or in an Executive Box viewing from behind a glass screen.
Following this research Peter and his wife Kate had the idea of creating a designated area inside the ground to ensure Nathan could get full enjoyment of the game. I met with them at Nathan’s school to look at the sensory room facilities they had there for students.
Peter and Kate put out a survey to local schools to see if there was interest in using a sensory room at the stadium, and I continued to work with the family on this. The survey and ideas were put forward to the board at Sunderland AFC and following Margaret Byrne’s approval, the room was created in the Black Cats Bar for the 2015/16 season. As a thank you to the family for their great idea the club named the room after Nathan Shippey.
Why did SAFC decide to go ahead with the installation? Was is difficult to install?
Following the feedback received from local schools across the city it was clear to see that there was a lot of interest and demand for a facility like this.
At Sunderland AFC we have a key focus on making the matchday experience an enjoyable one for every supporter. Nathan needed assistance with his matchday so he could watch the game for 90 minutes. Since the rooms installation he has seen every home game at the ground and not missed a minute of action. Many other supporters have also been able to use the sensory room and enjoy supporting the team.
Installation was straight forward. The club worked with Rowan Specialist Interiors and Professional Flooring Services to build the room inside our Black Cats Bar hospitality suite. The sensory room is located in the left corner of the suite as you first walk through. Following recommendation from Sunningdale School, we worked with Mike Ayres Design regarding the bubble tube and padded area. The costs were reasonable but it was more about providing a facility for supporters with sensory needs so that could enjoy the match.
How many people use the facility at each match and what do they think about the it?
Every supporter that has used the Nathan Shippey sensory room has had a wonderful time and stayed for the entire game. Many families have spoken to me after the game saying that they never felt their children would be able to come and support the team, so to have an area that can provide them with that opportunity is fantastic. It has been a great success and a key example of how supporters’ ideas can be implemented by clubs to improve matchday for everyone.
The sensory room can have three supporters and three carers for a home game. There has been high demand all season and the room has been full for all games and we now have a waiting list. We have also had supporters from visiting clubs use it too.
The location of the room means the families can arrive two hours before kick-off and use a designated entrance and lift for the Black Cats Bar to ensure they don’t have high crowds around them on arrival.
Do you have any further plans to improve accessibility at the ground?
As a club we are always looking to make the access and experience for all supporters as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Any supporter suggestions regarding accessibility are given strong consideration and we liaise regularly with our Disabled and Escort group for this.
I think it is important for football clubs to look at the needs of all supporters and this was fundamental in the Nathan Shippey room being established.