SUNDERLAND'S new sponsorship deal is proof Ellis Short's quiet revolution is something to shout about.
RECLUSIVE, publicity-shy and intensely private. These are just a few of the words pinned on Sunderland owner Ellis Short since the velvet revolution ended the era of Irish ownership at the Stadium of Light.
Some four years on, and in the wake of the club signing the most lucrative and intriguing shirt sponsorship deal in its history, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the Texan billionaire.
For while Short is no more likely to go down the Dave Whelan rent-a-quote route as he is to rename the Stadium of Light after himself, his first proper engagement with the popular press was proof he will shine in front-line role this season.
Perhaps it is understandable why he has operated with the mute button on in public so far.
He had been encouraged to invest by Niall Quinn, and no-one was more qualified or better equipped to talk on Sunderland matters than the charismatic former chairman.
When Quinn stepped down at Christmas – understandably exhausted after helping to restore Sunderland to something like its former glories – the need for someone to fill the public void seemed acute.
While having a manager as high-profile as Martin O’Neill helps the club’s image, supporters have become used to honesty, humour and understanding from the very top.
In Short, they can rest assured. The quiet restructuring work going on behind the scenes is beginning to reap rewards and when the Texan decides to speak more regularly supporters will no doubt be impressed by his plans for sensible, sustainable improvements.
Having been burnt by the wheeler-dealer culture of football transfers which seemed to see Sunderland sign players for the sake of it, he now wants his investment to spent sensibly.
In O’Neill, Short sees a kindred spirit who ‘gets him’ – and the disillusionment which descended in the first year of his ownership has lifted – and he speaks with an authority about a game he came into as a novice.
It helped he had good news to announce.
Aware of the desperate need to generate new revenue in the era of Financial Fair Play, the Black Cats business team have been searching for new partners and fresh areas of investment ever since Short bought out the Drumaville Consortium in late 2008.
In the shape of a pioneering partnership with the Invest in Africa initiative, those efforts have borne fruit.
It provides opportunities, exposure and – Short insisted to journalists – the most lucrative commercial deal in the club’s history.
If that all sounds a bit dry – and supporters usually reserve their excitement for major signings in the close season – there were pretty big words from the man behind Invest in Africa at the press unveiling.
Aidan Heavey is the founder of Tullow Oil, the major partner of Invest in Africa and a man who oversees a business worth an estimated £12.5billion.
He is not used to backing losing causes and his insistence Sunderland can become major players on a continent in love with Manchester United and Chelsea should illustrate just why the Black Cats were so keen to make a song and dance about their new deal.
He said: “At a stroke, this association will make Sunderland the most popular football club in Africa.
“At the moment, the usual clubs are the biggest, people like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
“Football supporters right across Africa will now see the Invest In Africa logo on the front of Sunderland shirts and take pride in that.
From now on, Sunderland will be their team. The exposure will be massive for Sunderland and I am confident the club will see immediate and tangible benefits.
“It is also a great move for Invest In Africa because we can spread our message to a much bigger audience thanks to the popularity of Sunderland and the Premier League.”
To continue to prosper, the Wearsiders must continue to explore and Short understands even standing still in the Premier League requires effort and investment.
That is why working with Invest in Africa is so appealing to the club.
The Black Cats were not revealing the exact size of the deal but it comes with added fringe benefits. The prospect of establishing a foothold in the continent is particularly important.
Short said: “Commercially this is a good deal for us.
“More importantly than that it expands our presence and it expands our fan base, potentially. In the modern world of football we are going to be living with financial fair play so our spending will be limited by what we can bring in.
“The Premier Legaue is a global business watched by millions worldwide.
“The reason TV revenues are so high and are continuing to grow is a reflection of the fact all these people, globally, watch it.
“To thrive going forward we need to be able to grow revenue. To grow it locally does not make any sense.
“This is where our fans are, this is by far the most important area for us but even the UK, with 16million people, is not enough when you are looking at TV revenue generated by billions.
“If we can become a popular team in Africa it is probably better than being the 100th most popular team in the richest economy in the world.”
WHAT IS INVEST IN AFRICA?
IT is a business initiative that aims to promote Africa as a leading investment destination and to challenge perceptions about investing in the continent. It is not a charity – it is a business-to-business initiative.
The organisation was impressed by the club’s Foundation work and the Black Cats’ history of working with African players. They have signed Asamoah Gyan, John Mensah, Sulley Muntari and Ahmed Elmohamady recently – as well as current player of the year Stéphane Sessègnon.