How can Sunderland AFC protect its brand reputation after player’s jail sentence?

Recent headlines regarding Adam Johnson, attacking midfielder for Sunderland AFC, 6 year imprisonment for sexually abusing a 15 year old fan, have had a negative knock on affect for a club already on the brink of relegation.

1) Brand Image

A winning streak is sometimes not enough to bring the revenue needed to run a successful premiership football club.  They have to build their reputation as a professional club and then maximise this.  .


A big part of a clubs brand is their players.  Their players have to live and breathe this, merchandise has to be branded correctly, promoted, and advertised, helping to not only build that persons’ brand but the football clubs’ image.

2) Crisis brand management

When news broke regarding Adam Johnson and the allegations of sexual abuse, Sunderland AFC were initially seen to put in place their crisis management plan and act in the best interests of the club, by suspending Johnson with immediate effect.

From a brand perspective and due to the serious nature of the allegations this was seen as the “right thing to do” and it protected the football clubs image as it showed respect to the victim and her family as well as making a stand that it would not tolerate this kind of behaviour.

3) What went wrong

Johnson was soon back on the pitch and allowed to continue playing for the club despite the initial suspension.

The NSPCC has openly accused Sunderland AFC of putting results ahead of child safety and it was not only away fans who agreed with this but Sunderland fans and now the club continues to face backlash from the critics as to why this was allowed to happen.


In a statement provided by the club they say: “The club reached this decision only after carrying out a safeguarding assessment and liaising with relevant agencies”.  But is this enough?  Thinking about brand reputation and your biggest revenue generator being your supporters, losing their trust can send you on a downward spiral.

4) The outcome 

Johnson has since been sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for sexually abusing a 15-year old fan.  As for Sunderland AFC there are still a lot of unanswered questions and the more they avoid answering the more criticism they’re beginning to face.

From a brand point of view their image has now been tainted.  Trust is everything when it comes to building a positive brand experience and their reputation now has to be re-built with their fans and the rest of the footballing community.

References:  The Guardian
Pictures from: Chronicle Live UK.

Amanda is a copywriter with over 10 years’ experience in the world of marketing and communications. With an effective and no nonsense approach, she can look at any challenge with a creative and can do attitude.

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