It’s a great PR gesture, as far as PR gestures go. Too bad it sends a terrible message.
After Southampton treated Sunderland’s away supporters to a horrific 8-0 annihilation last weekend, Black Cats goalkeeper Vito Mannone consulted his wounded conscience after committing a pair of errors and revised a plan. He and his fellow players would refund the tickets of those who made the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Sunderland to St. Mary’s. At 24 pounds a ticket, the total came to 60,000 pounds (that is roughly five percent of Mannone’s annual salary). A drop in the bucket for Premier League players, maybe, but a kind offer to bookend a sorry week for Sunderland.
Right? Perhaps, but while the intentions behind the refund here were good, and certainly I won’t fault any long-suffering supporter for accepting the offer, it also implies that there is no value in watching your team lose by eight goals in a single match. It negates the inherent risk that comes with buying a ticket to a soccer match. No matter how good or bad your team, something can always go very, very wrong.
For one, we could have a lengthy debate over whether an 8-0 loss is, say, qualitatively worse than a 2-1 loss in which your team gives up a 1-0 lead by conceding two boneheaded penalties in added time. Furthermore, sometimes otherwise okay teams, are outclassed no matter how hard they try to take control of a match (see Roma’s 1-7 loss to Bayern in the Champions League this past Tuesday). Sometimes teams lose big not out of incompetence but because they try too hard, pushing up the pitch after conceding two goals in rapid succession only to leave huge gaps in defense. Big losses are one of those things that can happen to teams that aren’t in the top four.
That said, from an experiential perspective, having watched Canada go out of World Cup qualification after losing 8-1 against Honduras at the San Pedro Sula (Canada needed only a draw to progress to CONCACAF’s final round), I know the bitter sting of a lopsided loss. It’s awful. The latter goals, while the most meaningless for the result, are somehow also the most painful.
But though the loss was horrible to watch, it was a game that carried huge value to me as a Canada fan. If anything, it increased my loyalty to the team and program, in the belief that things couldn’t get much worse. It brought already long-suffering Canada supporters even closer together, united by the awful experience of that October day in 2012 (some had the fortunate misfortune of being there in person). It was another chapter in the miserable history of the Canadian men’s national team, and it made me want to help ensure, in whatever little way I could, something like that didn’t happen again.
Loyal supporters of a club like Sunderland — the kind who would make the lengthy trip from England’s northeast to the south coast — don’t pay for tickets in the certain expectation of sweet, sweet Ws. For many of them, soccer isn’t mere entertainment; if it was, they’d support another, more consistently successful team. Rather, they pay to be part of a community, to be part of something bigger than themselves. They pay in hope for a good result, but in full knowledge of the risk that things will go pear-shaped, or worse. Despite the growing influence of television coverage on the game, soccer stadiums aren’t like the cinema, where you ask for a refund if you aren’t sufficiently entertained. Clubs are just that: clubs. You’re either a part of it, for good or ill, or you’re not.
“God, you remember that 8-0 loss to Saints?”
“Yes … I’ll never forget it. I was there. Were you?”
“No. No, I’m sorry. I wasn’t.”
For those Sunderland supporters who watched the abysmal result last Saturday, they’ll have a gallows story for all time. They’ll have instant credibility as a Sunderland die-hard. They will forever carry with them the memory of when the excitement of a long drive down the M1 dissolved after Jack Cork’s goal in the 36th minute, and transformed into a nightmare after Southampton scored five more.
They’ll forever be able to ask “Where were you when we were shit?” in good conscience. That experience is priceless. At 24 pounds a ticket, it’s a steal.