JJB meets Marwan Koukash
First published in Rugby League World, Issue 387 (July 2013)
“Now, I’m not a Rugby League expert, I’m a business man, but the way I look at it, with the rules and regulations that people impose in the game I would say that we are deliberately making the game a second class sport.”
From boy soldier to millionaire racehorse owner and now Rugby League club chairman. JAMIE JONES-BUCHANAN meets up with one of the most talked about men in the game, Dr Marwan Koukash, the new Salford City Reds owner.
DR MARWAN Koukash is a man that has already fascinated people with his bold enthusiasm for Rugby League and his fresh perspective on the direction of the sport, uninfluenced by the paradigms of yesteryear.
Here is a man who is an external investor taking the leap into club ownership after watching just two games – such is the attractive nature of our game.
Last month I was invited to the Salford versus Bradford game to help summarise for BBC Radio Leeds and hoped to use the opportunity to interview Salford’s new owner. Salford and Bradford were two clubs in Super League whose financial difficulties were very well documented, as was the hardship they endured until they found salvation in the form of Koukash and of Omar Khan respectively.
Even when you take Rugby League out of the picture, I am fascinated by the story of Marwan himself who, as a war refugee, journeyed across Palestine, through the Jordan River and finally came to settle in Kuwait at the tender age of nine.
To hear those real-life experiences so powerfully added verisimilitude to the Holy Land bible stories I have engrained in my mind, and served to reaffirm how early adversity can enhance our character if we have the courage to endure it.
There were periods in his life where he lived as a “boy soldier” who was in a daily grind for survival, and I sense that the tough background played a part in the humble, kind and determined character he seems to be today.
Largely through his father’s hard work, Marwan had the opportunity to come to study in Liverpool in the late ’70s. He brought his survival instincts with him and learned the English language along the way, whilst seemingly translating the word survival into win.
“I was born in Palestine and I grew up there till the age of nine,” he explained.
“We lived in a basic village and lived off the land. We had a very simple life and ate whatever we grew. Money in those days just didn’t exist, we just swapped things with other villagers.
“In 1967 a war began and we were made refugees over night. We were more or less driven from our homes and we walked for three days through torrid terrain, over mountains and down to the Jordan River. We crossed the river and basically settled in a refugee camp for three years, which wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
“In that environment you learn how to survive, it forged my beliefs and made me a stronger person.
“In 1970 we had another war, but this time it was a civil war and we were fighting street to street. We knew the war was coming and I just became a boy soldier and the older boys would train you to carry a gun and shoot. If you didn’t shoot then you would get shot yourself, that’s what civil wars are all about.
“Although it wasn’t luxurious I still have family there, Palestine will always be in my heart and I will always have precious memories.
“I live in a different environment now but it’s easy to see what’s going on over there today and I can imagine myself there still living their life. If you take politics out of it we are all human beings and there are three religions we all recognise, Christians, Jewish and Muslim.
“That land cannot be exclusively for the use of the Jews, originally it was for the Muslims and Christians who formed the majority.
Many Jewish people moved over there for religious or Zionist reasons which is fine, but now the only way that land could survive and prevent more wars coming in is for it to be the three religions living side by side with no politics whatsoever. It has to be a single country and not divided, a country where all three religions are respected.
“My father initially wanted me to become a medical doctor and I think I lasted a year before I knew it wasn’t for me, so I went into the engineering side and got a degree in engineering. The classification of my degree wasn’t good enough and I felt like I had failed myself and not worked hard enough, so I decided to go for a higher degree; the highest degree you can go for is a PhD.
“When studying a PhD you have to come up with something new and I invented a very good system within a record time. When I was awarded the PhD I was also asked to stay on and teach as a member of staff.
“When I started teaching I remember being the youngest lecturer in the university but I had a great relationship with the students, I think that was because I was one of them, I was never above them, a bit like it is with the rugby now, I am one of the fans rather than being the chairman. I enjoyed lecturing for about five years then I had to move on and I set up my own business and never looked back.
“I saw the decline of Liverpool at the time, which wasn’t pleasant – the streets became derelict, then we saw the riots but it’s nice to see now, and I am contributing to Liverpool with a few projects and I’m building what could be the best hotel in Liverpool. I have taken some of the old Victorian buildings and I am turning them into a luxury hotel.”
THE GOOD DOCTOR
Today Marwan has two obvious recreational passions in his life – horse racing and more recently Rugby League. Passion is the key word because when you’re passionate about something it doesn’t matter how hard the work gets, it never becomes laborious.
When you combine that with the fact that the most frequent words in Marwan’s vocabulary are “win”, “achieve” and “success”, you’re almost persuaded that not much will stand in the way of his plans to take the soon-to-be Red Devils forward.
He has already done that in the world of horse racing, taking less that five years to become the most successful owner in the game with over 100 winning horses in a season. Listening to his plans at Salford you get the distinct impression that he will carry that distinguished ownership with him to the Red Devils “My bank manager invited me to the races five years ago and like rugby when I first got involved – I watched it for the first time, loved it and five years on I am possibly the most successful owner in the country,” he said.
“If you look at the league and the people below me they are all the royals and the sheiks, I am very proud with what I have achieved in five years. You see, five years when I started getting involved in racing and I said I am going to do this, they started calling me the ‘mad doctor’.
“This is true, in racing I was known as the mad doctor, a year or two years on when I started delivering winners, the began to call me the ‘lucky doctor’. Last year they gave me the title: ‘The good doctor’ because I was the first individual owner to get 100 winners in one year!
“Maybe it’s something I need to teach the rugby world that if I say I’m going to do something, it means I am bloody going to do it!
“I was on a flight to Dubai wanting some decent kip because I had meetings to attend there and Nigel (Wood) sat next to me and never shut up. He never did shut up about rugby and about this and that, I looked around to see if there were any other seats but there was nothing there so I decided to listen to him and at the end of the flight we became friends and exchanged numbers.
“I invited him to the races which he loved and he invited me to the rugby. Now rugby to me was just a game played with a funny shaped ball and I knew nothing about it.
“Rugby is a beautiful game to watch, the first time I watched I knew nothing, but the action gets you excited. I said to Nigel I want to go again, so I went to another match and expressed my interest to get involved.
“Before I became involved I had only watched two rugby games in my life.
“I remember walking into a meeting Nigel had brokered for me to buy the club. I said, ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t know much about rugby!’ How many players are there in each team?
“He said, ‘Listen, we have 90 seconds, I will give you a crash course on rugby’. He said rugby is played 13 by 13 players and the team consists basically of four generals and nine ugly b******s kicking the s*** out of each other.
“He told me about tries and conversions, so I knew a little bit before we had the meeting and hoped that what he told me wouldn’t be needed for the meeting.
“If I set myself a target, I use every avenue and every method, everything I have to achieve that target. The way I see it is like this – this is my dream, this is my vision and I won’t let anything get in the way.
“The desire to win is the hardship I have had – winning is survival! When you are in a refugee camp and have had crossed nations with three days of walking your winning then becomes surviving to the following day.
“You say to yourself, I am going to wake up the following day, I will go to sleep and I WILL wake up. I knew no matter how bad the terrain I was walking on with dangerous things like snakes and scorpions etc. I knew nothing was going to stop me from being alive the following day.
“Being in a refugee camp as well you set yourself targets to reach. I learned a lot from my dad – in 1970 we were refugees, then in
1976 my dad did something well for himself in order to be able to afford to send me away from Kuwait to fund my study. That (hard work) is in us.”
UNDERSELLING OUR PRODUCT
Marwan’s trade is in big business, and the foundation of any professional sport is business. It was obvious then to ask him how, with his executive hat on, he thought the Rugby League business was run.
His fresh professional perspective is extremely valuable in my humble opinion, particularly as a new but passionate member of the Rugby League community who can be honest and forthcoming without the fear of upsetting any long-lasting relationships.
I think it’s encouraging that the game has attracted such a personality – with the help of Nigel Wood of course – and I think it is important that we don’t just attract but learn from a man of his experience.
“My professional view, is that if I go to a website, whether its Sky, BBC, ITV or Channel 4, then Rugby League is listed as one of the major sports, one of the top five or six sports in the country.
“Now, I’m not a Rugby League expert, I’m a business man, but the way I look at it, with the rules and regulations that people impose in the game I would say that we are deliberately making the game a second class sport.
“The game is beautiful, and there are thousands of Marwans out there who will come to the game and fall in love with it. But the RFL as owners need to believe that the sport is a sleeping giant.
“A number of things need to happen, when you go to the movies or the theatre, football or rugby as a spectator you want to watch the best product. You know we can’t have the best product on view today or the best in the world because there’s a stupid smallest cap there preventing us from going out and recruiting, stopping us from keeping the Sam Tomkins in the game and bringing in the Billy Slaters and Sonny Bill Williams.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘you can have a team but it can’t include any superstars’. If you we’re to bring in those big names, they’re going to attract tens of thousands of spectators to the sport, they will bring in new players, encourage more youngsters to get involved then all of a sudden the sport is bigger.
“There will be better viewing figures and more money then for the clubs. You know in Australia the NRL clubs get a grant that is bigger than the salary cap – here the clubs get a grant that’s two thirds of the salary cap because in Australia they have marketed it properly.
“So generally speaking from a business point of view I think the sport is under marketed and under sold. I would defiantly smash the salary cap, bring in the best available and keep your best quality players here.
“Don’t tell me the best players go there because of the lifestyle, I have been to Australia, it’s not better than here! They go there for the money.
“As a player you can only play for ten or twelve years, that’s your career and you need to make the most out of it. So you need to have some kind of savings or build some kind of business that will set you up in the future, players are under paid and that’s because of the constraints of the sport.
“The other thing I think we should look at is the number of overseas players we should have in each team – I think we should have more. Contrary to what other people believe I think if we had more overseas players, especially the big names it would only encourage more youngsters to take up Rugby League because they are seeing better players.
“The Australians have sorted their problems in Rugby League and all of a sudden have a wider player and supporter base. The more people play the game the better the quality of players you’re going to get coming through.
“In England although we are a bigger country I think the number of people playing Rugby League are all around the M62 which is far smaller than in Australia, hence why they have better players in Australia because they have a bigger pool to choose from.”
LOOKING TO YOUTH
The RFL recently unveiled some innovative ideas to improve the league system in 2015 and I thought there was some real merit in what they put forward. The majority I have spoken to tend to favour the two leagues of twelve with relegation and promotion re-introduced.
One of the big worries in a closed system salary capped franchise is the issue of minimum spend. In the US I believe salary capped sports have a minimum spend to adhere to, which forces the clubs to invest their money into a competitive team on the field.
With no floor cap in our game clubs can spend as little as they want knowing that the premium will be there again the following year.
As Marwan points out, promotion and relegation would essentially mean that clubs reaped what they sowed, and if they failed to spend enough then there’s a chance they will fail to stay up.
That said, we understand that it’s not all about the money, when we look at Super League’s most successful clubs in recent years they all have one thing in common – a strong emphasis on youth development.
Contrary to what many may think, Marwan has no intentions of making Salford the Manchester City of Rugby League. Rather he is scouring the local schools and communities with the intentions of attracting and encouraging the kids at grass roots into the game.
In order to do that though he wants to invest initially in a successful team worthy of inspiring the youngsters aspirations “I have had a look at the new league restructuring proposals,” he said. “The best way forward is to split it into two with a maximum of twelve teams in the division and have relegation and promotion.
“Let’s not mess around with it too much, let’s go down this route to start with, this is the simpler route and everyone knows where they are.
“If you start having promotion and relegation the clubs would have to spend a minimum amount to maintain their position in the league. Some clubs, had they not had the funds for example, could spend half a million pounds and still receive a grant of £1.2million from the Rugby League and hold their position in the Super League.
“In the future, with promotion and relegation, people need to spend close to the current salary cap to maintain their position in Super League – failure to do so would result in heavy losses for them.
“The grass roots are also very, very important. When I came into the game I made a claim that I do want to build a successful team very, very soon but at the same time I want to spread Rugby League into Manchester.
“I have two strategies working here in parallel. The first one will be encouraging more youngsters to take up the sport and I will personally go visit as many schools as possible in the Greater Manchester area over the next 12 months. Not just to promote the club but to promote Rugby League in general.
“We are not going to get the production lines of the Wigans and Leeds of this world for another five or six years.
“We have a very well-established foundation, they are a part of the club, although their charitable status means they’re separate from us. I want to work with them to help their causes and in the process they will help ours.
“That’s where my second strategy would come in. The Salford supporters have been patient for so long and to go with my first strategy we need to produce a winning team very, very soon.
“That’s why I will go out and invest heavily in established stars, so when I go into schools and encourage people to take up the sport they can see that we also have an existing competitive club. It wouldn’t be the case, year in, year out, that I would just carry on bringing in established players.
“Established players would be the initial step to take us into a position where the Red Devils are competing at the highest level and the success will encourage more people to come to the sport.”
Being a charismatic guy, it’s obvious to see that Marwan’s model of business is built heavily around relationships. I had read that Dr Koukash likes his horse trainers to not just be good trainers but family friends also and I wandered if the same rule applied to his coach Brian Noble.
Brian himself also stressed that the two would have to see eye-to-eye about how a team is built if he was to take the job.
The two looked like best pals when Brian came in to the box in which I was interviewing Marwan, 15 minutes before kick-off, and it was great to see the British coach back in the game doing when he does best. Not only has Marwan seemingly forged deep relationships within the game, he also seems confident that he could encourage other investors and supporters into Rugby League if he was given the right tools and opportunities to do so.
He finished by agreeing that there’s no bigger time to do just that than inside a World Cup year.
“You only have to see us together when I meet up with Brian (Noble) that we have great chemistry together and hit it off straight away,” he said.
“Brian is what you would call a very emotionally intelligent leader. He’s a very warm person, I warmed to him within minutes of meeting him and it’s been great working with him.
“He shares my vision and although we both had other options it only took five or ten minutes to realise it would work. Maintaining a warm relationship between the owner and the coach is very important.
“For me Jamie, I manage differently from other clubs, I don’t have a board and I wont have a board either. It will be managed by myself where Brian will report to me directly so I will have that direct relationship with him on a daily basis and it has so far worked very well.
“I am somebody who came into the sport, watched it for the first time and wanted to go watch it again. Not everyone out there can go and buy a club but everyone can go watch it and be turned by a nice game, it’s a very attractive sport and it’s easy to turn them on.
“Also, when I used the term ‘there are other Marwans out there’, I mean in the sense that there are other investors out there wanting to come into the League, but if we say to them you can come in and you can invest but you can’t invest enough money into it because there’s a salary cap, that’s what’s keeping the crucial investors away.
“Other investors will come in providing they are given an opportunity to go out and invest in the game, attract good players and build competitive teams straight away.
“I remember speaking to the press some time in January and saying that this year is a huge opportunity for Rugby League because the World Cup is being held in England. If we can’t take up this opportunity and maximise the benefits of it then we would have failed badly.
“I still believe there’s still a lot more work that can be done to expose the sport further in order to raise its profile. I’m not responsible for the marketing but if ever I am needed as an ambassador for the game and to speak to potential newcomers into the sport I would be happy to invest my time into that.”
With a life story and experience like Dr Marwan Koukash has, you would think the sport would be foolish to turn that kind of offer down.
As part of the Reading Agency’s “Six Book Challenge” – and in conjunction with England Rugby League – I’ve been asking the interviewees what their last read was.
The Six Book Challenge is aimed at getting adults back into reading by making the time to read just six books or pieces of online literature, magazine articles.
Paradoxically, the usual excuse for not reading is that the person like me is too busy to read. My solution was to read “The Busy Christian’s Guide to Business”, which has both ticked off one book and sorted out my business at the same time.
Wanting to know what Dan Brown is raving about, my next book will probably be at ‘Dante’s Inferno’.
The last book Marwan read was a book about the Kray twins that he said he enjoyed.
I didn’t want to know his rationale behind that nor did he give me the exact title but it’s great to see a man with a family, global business, 100 horses and a Rugby League club to take care of can still find time to read.
Look at the Reading Agency’s website today and get yourself involved in the “Six Book Challenge”, and see some of the Wigan players taking part at http://readingagency.org.uk
Read the latest JJB interviews every month in Rugby League World Magazine!
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