MT Reviews: Sunderland FC's Stadium of Light

MT reviewer Kier Wiater-Carnihan heads over to the home of the Mackems to find out whether hosting a business conference, meeting, or dinner at the Stadium of Light is a bright idea...

by Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Last Updated: 04 Sep 2013

Just over a year ago an advert appeared at Newcastle International Airport, proclaiming: 'Because not everything in life is black & white'. The joke won't have been lost on anyone with a passing knowledge of sporting rivalries.

It was, of course, part of a marketing campaign for Sunderland Association Football Club,  bitter enemies of the monochrome Magpies of Newcastle United, in a rivalry that dates back to the English Civil War.

The message of the advert was clear. While its rivals may generally be thought of as the biggest club in the region, Sunderland AFC isn't content to hide in the shadows. Not just on the pitch (the Mackems are currently two points ahead of their rivals in the Premier League) but off it too. Both clubs are keen to exploit the non-matchday revenue-making potential of their stadia, and the battle to provide the best conference facilities is one hotly-contested area of competition.

Sunderland's Stadium of Light (the name's an ironic tribute to the former colliery site the ground is built upon) has recently made a name for itself as one of the area's largest music venues, with gigs by Bon Jovi and Rihanna scheduled for the summer. Yet the non-football uses of the stadium run much further, from Willy Wonka themed parties (complete with oompa-loompas) to 'Marco's Black Cats Kitchen', which sees celebrity chef Marco Pierre-White and a selection of Sunderland players cook a gourmet meal for assorted guests.

Our guide, who previously worked for a telecommunications giant, admits that she's 'never been in a working environment as business-orientated as football'. Indeed, on the day we visited, manager Martin O'Neill was hosting a lunch for local chief executives, demonstrating the club's desire to become a networking hub rather than just a standard venue-for-hire. With the North East Chamber of Commerce (the largest chamber of commerce in the country) said to use the stadium frequently, it would appear that they're achieving their goal.

Their links to many local businesses can have unexpected benefits – when a regional metro strike coincided with a Coldplay gig at the Stadium of Light, the club were still able to provide a good ('if not better') transport service for ticket-holders. When industrial action isn't taking place, the transport links are pretty convenient; the stadium has its own metro station and is well-served by local buses, while Sunderland rail station has been running to Kings Cross St Pancras for the last seven years. Newcastle International Airport is about half an hour's drive away and there's free parking available at the ground.

In terms of facilities, you're spoilt for choice. There are sixty-four rooms available in total, running from the obligatory executive boxes (some of which can accommodate a sizeable forty-eight guests) to the thousand capacity Black Cats Bar, with the entire stadium available for hire if the event necessitates it. All catering is done in-house by the club's 1879 Events Management subsidiary (which can also be hired for outside events), although we are told of one Newcastle-supporting guest who refused use napkins emblazoned with the Sunderland crest and had to be provided with non-branded alternatives.

The anecdote is emblematic of how accommodating the stadium is, with a wide variety of suites on offer. The 200-capacity Riverview Brasserie provides, yes, a river view (albeit not an exceptionally pretty one), with a patio available for barbecues, while the smaller James Herriott Suite also boasts a balcony and is chock full of intriguing memorabilia relating to the veterinarian novelist and former club president.

In general the stadium's primary purpose is played up, with oodles of football photos, quotes and, in the bustling Quinn's Sports Bar, old goalposts and fittings from the team's former home, Roker Park. However, many of the spaces can be completely transformed with a bit of imagination and a decent décor budget.

The Banqueting Suite is perhaps the most versatile and has been used for a wide range of events. While it has a maximum capacity of 600, the club has handled 9000 students when hosting Sunderland University's graduation ceremony, utilising satellite link-ups connected to other parts of the ground (an achievement which secured it RSVP's 'Most creative use of a sports venue' award in 2007). It was also recently the setting for a charity fashion show featuring first team players striding down the catwalk in their underwear (a sobering thought when the team is full of lookers like Lee Cattermole, Carlos Cuéllar and Titus Bramble).

If you require something a bit more swish, the Business Lounge goes for a champagne & oyster feel with designer lampshades and classy décor providing "a stylish environment uncommon for the area" (their words, not ours). It's licensed till 12.30am, so up to 240 guests can keep drinking until a reasonable hour.

The largest area is the afore-mentioned Black Cats Bar, which boasts a superb view of the pitch as well as a moveable dancefloor, extra-large foosball table and the option to separate the area into different sections (although a minimum 120 guests is required). It runs the length of the Strongbow stand, and as you can imagine the bars are not wanting for cider taps.

For something that feels a little more exclusive you can even hire the Player's Lounge and Media Lounge for events (good for reminiscing about Roy Keane's stint as manager by practising your best journalist-crumbling glower from his old press conference seat). Stadium tours can also be arranged for guests, and if you take one you'll get to experience what must be the plushest tunnel in football, complete with thick red carpeting – modern day footballers, eh?

In terms of comparison with similar services offered by their great rivals, Sunderland will never be able to compete with Newcastle United's location and transport links. However, in most other areas they tend to outshine their neighbours, meaning that it's hard to separate the two overall. Still, while this particular match may be set to go into extra-time, the services provided by both stadia means that, ultimately, business in the North East is the winner.    

Find out more about the Stadium of Light.

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