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Ellis Short: New deal will help Sunderland cement top-ten status
ELLIS Short is confident Sunderland's pioneering partnership with the Invest In Africa initiative will help establish the club as a permanent fixture in the top half of the Premier League.
The Black Cats yesterday confirmed Invest In Africa, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes Africa as a leading investment destination, as their principal partner and shirt sponsor.
The club have not revealed the precise financial figures behind the arrangement, but Short claims it sets "a new commercial benchmark" in terms of sponsorship and opens the door to an African market in which 300 million people regularly watch Premier League football on television.
Sunderland's annual turnover is currently the tenth-highest in the top-flight, and while commercial income does not necessarily equate to on-field success, the club's American owner is hoping increased global exposure will help drive the Black Cats up the table.
"We feel that with Martin, and with the progress we have made, we are
well positioned," said Short. "We want to be well within the top ten. We certainly can't promise that, but we're not happy with where we are and we want to continue to improve.
"There's a huge pressure to do so - both from the fans and their expectations, and from the sheer size of the economics that are involved in the Premier League.
"We're an established Premier League club and with a manager like Martin O'Neill, we expect to really improve. So to now be sponsored by an initiative that has international companies involved is a good reflection on us and I think it indicates we have taken a step up."
The Invest In Africa initiative was launched by Tullow Oil, Africa's largest independent oil company, in January, and thanks to the involvement of former chairman Niall Quinn, Sunderland have been key partners from the outset.
The organisation hopes to help North-East businesses invest in Africa through a partnership of companies that are already heavily involved on the continent.
Their sponsorship of Sunderland will enable them to spread their message throughout the world, while the club will hope to make commerical inroads into a region that is both football-mad and relatively untapped in terms of sporting commerce.
"Commercially, this is a good deal for us," said Short. "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.
"To thrive going forward, we need to be able to grow revenue. To grow it locally doesn't make any sense."This (Wearside) is where our fans are, this is by far the most important area for us, but even the UK, with 16m people, isn't enough when you're looking at TV revenue generated by billions.
"Africa, as has been said many times, is a very fast-growing continent with 300m watching Premier League matches. If we can become a popular team on that continent, it's probably better than being the 100th most popular team in the richest economy in the world."
The hope is that yesterday's announcement will have transformed Sunderland's profile at a stroke.
The club is already well-known in Africa thanks to the presence of Stephane Sessegnon and Ahmed Elmohamady in the squad, and the former involvement of the likes of Asamoah Gyan, John Mensah and Sulley Muntari, but their new sponsorship arrangement should make them even more popular.
"At a stroke, this association will make Sunderland the most popular football club in Africa," said Aidan Heavey, the chief executive of Tullow Oil. "At the moment, the usual clubs are the biggest, people like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
"But 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 key question for Sunderland supporters is whether an increase in exposure and income will be reflected in the budget available to manager Martin O'Neill this summer.
O'Neill has been targeting a mix of free signings and more expensive acquisitions in the early weeks of the transfer window, and while there is a desire to prevent expenditure spiralling out of control in the way that is has perhaps done in the past, there will be scope for some significant squad strengthening.
"Martin and I have been talking all summer about what we're going to do," said Short. "I think the fans have a pretty good idea of what we need to do and I think everybody has a pretty good idea of what we need to do.
"So now Martin is looking at specific players we might want and there will be a lot of work in trying to get those players here.
"But we don't want to sign players for the sake of signing them - or because it feels inexpensive, for some reason. We want to identify players who are good and who will definitely improve us, and try to bring them in."