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Netflix’s ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ is the antidote to the sports shutdown

The second season of the surprising soccer docuseries is more fascinating than ever in chronicling the balance between business and culture.

Netflix’s ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ is the antidote to the sports shutdown
[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

There is no business on the planet more driven by emotion than soccer.

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North American sports fans are certainly passionate about the success and failures of our chosen teams, but the business side of these are just not as inextricably linked to game success for members of Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, or NFL.

English soccer is a pyramid of more than eight levels of professional clubs, connected by a system of promotion and relegation. At its simplest, every season the bottom three clubs in each league are dropped to the league directly below it, while the top three clubs promoted to the league directly above.

With these moves, especially in the top four levels, the higher you go, the more money is at stake. Consider that the Premier League, the country’s top division, splits hundreds of millions in broadcast revenues among its clubs. When Sunderland Football Club was relegated from the Premier League in 2017, it lost tens of millions of dollars and felt like a gut punch to the working-class city in northeast England.

Then the first season of the Netflix docuseries Sunderland ‘Til I Die saw them immediately relegated to the third tier (inexplicably called League One), further hurting their finances—and thus their chances of returning to the top.

The series’ second season, which debuted earlier this week, chronicles the club’s ambitions to get back to the second tier under the new ownership that arrived at the end of season one, which provided a sliver of hope for this hardscrabble city’s faithful fans.

It’s a story of faith and failure. And if you were hoping for a triumphant ending, let’s just say that the series’ somber opening credit song is still very much appropriate.

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The trials and tribulations of owner Stewart Donald and executive Charlie Methven are must-see TV for any sports fan, regardless of whether you know anything about soccer or not. At a time when brands and companies are increasingly forced to narrow the gap between what they say and how they act as a company, it’s fascinating to see this approach put into practice in the pressure cooker of English soccer.

Sometimes it’s like The Office, like the chef’s kiss of unintentional comedy when Methven and his marketing department discuss replacing the stadium’s intro music.

And other moments, like when Donald spends way too much money on a new player—going against all his good business instincts—are as exciting, painful, and tense as almost any game. With less than five minutes until the transfer deadline, Donald makes a definitive move, albeit ill-advised in hindsight, after which he says, clearly emotionally drained, “This football club is going to kill me.”

For executive producer Leo Pearlman, a 40-year fan of Sunderland, while the owners weren’t perfect, they were at least consistent. “The truth is these guys came in and made this big announcement that they were going to be the most open and transparent owners of a football club that the U.K. had ever seen, and I think they completely lived up to that,” says Pearlman. “They were honest to a fault, and let’s be clear, they took over a club rotten to its core and at an all-time low of its 130-year history, and came within a penalty kick and a missed chance or two from winning a cup and promotion. That’s how narrow the margins are.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]
If the first season was a story about the fans trying to wrest control of the club away from an absentee billionaire owner (who just happened to run the club into the ground), this new season is a look at the promising but unenviable task of trying to do things in a way that’s true to the fans but also keeps the club alive as a business. “Running a football club, certainly in the lower leagues, is as tough a job as anyone could take on,” says Pearlman. “Trying to find that balance between fiscal responsibility and delivering for the fans, who put their life’s passion behind it, is a thankless task. Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would do it.”

The results on the field may remain wanting, but one thing Sunderland supporters—and any sports fan, really—can thank Donald and Methven for is the second season of this series. Winning and euphoria are such a small part of loving any game or team. So much of fandom is lived riding a pendulum between hope and disappointment, distilled sweetly by series stalwart and season-ticket holder Andrew Cammiss hugging his young son, who’s on the verge of tears after a big loss: “We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”

Sunderland ‘Til I Die was itself a presence among the fans, as the first season debuted as they filmed this new one. Pearlman says that it was surreal to see the sense of pride that the show instilled in fans. “We went to that Boxing Day game, the biggest home attendance in the league, and to have Lake Poets singing [the series theme] to the crowd, to have show advertising around the pitch, people talking about it outside, vendors that made T-shirts with the show logo on it, it was strange.”

Documentarians take pride in not interfering with their subjects, but here Pearlman and his partners have made Sunderland a cultural touchstone for any sports fan. “The club’s getting interest from abroad at a level that it had never seen, certainly in my living memory,” he says. “Supporters’ clubs popping up all over the world, and I’ve been told stories of fans hopping into a cab in New York wearing a kit or Sunderland badge, and the driver saying, ‘I love that show!'” As soccer and other sports around the world remain halted amid the pandemic crisis, the series will give fans of all stripes and loyalties an emotional fix missing right now.

“To have this show come out now is an absolute blessing,” says Pearlman. “We’ve had messages from non-Sunderland fans that thanked us for making the show, saying it reminded them that things will eventually go back to normal.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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