A Q&A with Widnes CEO James Rule – Part 1

League Publications was granted an exclusive sit down interview with Widnes CEO James Rule earlier this week to discuss the current position of the club and what the future holds. In the first of several instalments, Rule discusses the club’s current position, apathy among the fanbase and how it has affected the club plus much more. The second and third part of this interview will be in next week’s League Express.

Matthew Shaw (MS): To start off, if I was to ask you how satisfied you are with where the club is at, looking at the entire model, what would you say?

James Rule (JR): Based on where we were when I joined in September 2012, naturally there’s a lot that I’m very proud of.

We have an Academy that is ranked as outstanding and more importantly is developing quality players. We have 18 players, soon to be 19, who have come through our youth system to the first-team squad. Outstanding young players like Matt Whitley and Brad Walker want to commit to us in the long-term.

We’ve cleared all of our historic debt, which was considerable, and we’re now at a break-even financial position. What we do in the community is raising the bar in British sport. On the field, it’s been a story of steady progression. From finishing bottom of the league to our highest league position a couple of years ago. There’s a huge amount to be happy about.

I think my main frustration at the minute, which is echoed by the supporters, are the injuries. They are undermining our ability to continue our momentum and has us on the back foot – we’ve not been able to get our strongest team on the field. Naturally, that has knock-on effects with supporters and we’ve seen a hit on our gates, which puts our business under pressure.

MS: There is some apathy among the fans at the minute. Do you understand why they feel frustrated, nervous, anxious, whatever it is?

JR: The word frustration sums it up perfectly and I’m understanding of that because at the end of the day, people want results. What’s really powerful is that the supporters want the exact same thing as everyone at the club – from myself to the players, the coaches and the directors- success on the field. The challenge for all of us is to take a deep breath and look at the reasons why we are not as competitive as we’d like to be. It comes back to injuries – it’s not a whinge or a whine, it’s a statement of fact.

We used almost 40 players last year, that is more than any other team in the competition. Those same challenges have unfortunately been repeated this season, and that has a huge impact.

Take, for example, the top seventeen players at Saints, compared to at Widnes. Eight of the Saint’s players haven’t missed a game this season, compared to just one for us – Tom Olbison. Our starting seventeen have missed more than 90 games, compared to around 30 at Saints – and less than that if you take Matty Smith out of that equation. The brutal reality is that if a chunk of your top seventeen aren’t taking to the field, you’re going to struggle.

We’ve been missing key leaders like Krisnan Inu, Gil Dudson, Lloyd White, Patrick Ah Van and Hep Cahill. They’re integral parts of our team. Our players haven’t been out with preventable soft-tissue injuries, but breaks, ligament tears and concussions that come with high-impact sport.

I do understand why people are frustrated but I hope they recognise that we haven’t been at our strongest. When these players come back, we can be judged on what we deliver on the field.

MS: But that hasn’t connected with fans and crowds have dipped. How is that impacting the club and what you’re trying to achieve?

JR: It’s made life very difficult. People have heard me say before that the only option is for this club to be run sustainably. Very simply, what we make, we spend – we re-invest the money that comes into the club.

If our revenue streams are under pressure, then we are restricted in what we can spend. We started the season with aspirations to make another mid-season signing, we were working closely with VIQI (Vikings Quids-In: a supporters group). Unfortunately, we’ve had to step back for now because the drop in membership, combined with the drop in gates, has eroded the budget in place for those signings. It is difficult because we want to move forward but we also have to be realistic – we can only spend what we have available.

MS: What figures are we looking at precisely here?

JR: In the off-season I didn’t budget for a drop in membership, but unfortunately that has happened. The net effect was that we were around £75,000 down rolling into the season and we’re now around £60,000 down on gates so far this season. That’s a very difficult position to absorb.

MS: So, to confirm, that’s stopped you from bringing in new additions?

JR: Yes, it has. If we had the same level of membership as last season, we’d have made another pre-season signing. If our gates were the same in-season as last year we’d have made another mid-season signing. So yes, we’ve missed the chance to make two signings in that period.

MS: The Kevin Brown scenario is brought up a lot. The fans don’t feel that money was reinvested into the squad, why was that?

JR: People always see recruitment as new signings. To many people, unless it’s a new face it doesn’t count, but actually investment breaks down into three components.

One is a new signing, so a Krisnan Inu, a Wellington or Stanton Albert, a Sam Wilde, and so on. The second part is an ascending contract, so some players will have contracts that have enhancements in different seasons, on the basis that they will be more experienced and of greater value as they grow in seniority.

Then you have internal retention. Last year was a good example as we used 40 players, and we sought to reward a lot of those players that progressed, such as the Chapelhow brothers, Danny Walker and Jordan Johnstone. They’re existing players, but rightly we’ve had to recognise their importance and work hard to retain their services in the face of competition from our rivals, with new and improved contracts.

When we sold Kevin, at his request for us to do so, I went on record and said that we wanted to ring-fence that money and spend every single penny on internal retention and recruitment. However, I was clear at that at the time that the investment we would make would be dependent upon other revenue streams staying consistent. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and our membership numbers dropped.

A big chunk of that money was used on recruitment and retention, but unfortunately, another proportion was used on plugging the shortfall in income from people who didn’t retain their memberships. It’s not what people want to hear but that’s the reality. We can’t ring-fence money for transfers on one side, and not pay bills or mount up unsustainable debts on another.

MS: On the community side of things, it’s clear that the club works incredibly hard on it, but what’s the purpose of it?

JR: Widnes Vikings have to be innovative to be competitive. We could sit on our hands and say there is a smaller population and fewer businesses here than in a city like Leeds, so we will always struggle to match them commercially. But that’s not my attitude, you can’t sit there and moan – you need to do things differently and look at where you can secure investment.

When I came into this club, I realised that the club had lost its attachment to the younger generation. When I looked out at our stands, I wouldn’t see any kids wearing Widnes replica shirts. We established the community setup because we wanted to forge an emotional attachment with local people and build relationships with the young players of tomorrow. Morally I think it’s the right thing to do, to get out and make a difference in the community.

All of the programmes that we deliver bring in investment. If I put it in its most simple format, last year we made more from the investment generated from public and private institutions for our community programmes than we did from our membership and attendances combined. It’s an integral and essential way to keep growing the club and ensuring it survives. Obviously, all of this is separate to the brilliant work of our charitable Foundation, which makes a real difference locally.

Beyond this, the majority of our sponsors support us because we are a socially conscious club that makes a difference. Not every business sees a value in rugby league sponsorship, but being able to support programmes that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives is something that many organisations want to be associated with.

With less than 3,000 members and gates averaging around 5,500 we’d be foolish to say we could sustain a competitive Super League club, relying solely on revenue generated by our supporter base. Our supporters are incredibly valuable to us, and their investment is absolutely vital, but we need to generate additional revenue beyond their contributions. These community programmes provide that.

MS: One of the comments that some people state is that the club is more bothered about what’s going on off the pitch than on it…

JR: Without being disrespectful, I don’t think that people understand what we’re doing. If people knew the advantages that other clubs have, they would appreciate why we have to be so innovative and dedicated off the field.

Other clubs have major revenue streams, like food or beverage sales, or box hire, that we do not. They have bigger populations, so have greater opportunities for retail, membership and ticketing. When I was CEO at Hull FC, the turnover for retail and season tickets was more than £2 million – comparatively, here it’s circa £600,000. The gap between us and some of our rivals is several million pounds.

If we accepted that we’re ‘just a rugby club’ and opened the gates, expecting big crowds to turn up and generate the revenue required to exist in the Super League, we’d be in dreamland.

We’re getting out and finding innovative ways to bring investment in, in a small community, and working hard to sustain this club. When people say we’re more focused on off-field than on field, they need to appreciate that you don’t have a competitive team without strong off-field efforts.

As challenging as it is, and sometimes it feels like David and Goliath, we’ll continue to work tirelessly to bring in revenue to invest in the team. We want to compete at the highest levels of the Super League and enjoy success.

MS: How about recruitment? Is anything in the pipeline at the minute?

JR: As I said, the aspiration at the start of the year was to do that. The reality now is that it’s still possible, but we need to see an upturn in gates. The game against Wigan on Friday is a watershed moment for us in that sense.

If we can grow and sustain our crowds, we can fill some of the gaps and build a budget for recruitment. If we’re down again, it makes it even harder to sign players, even if the aspiration to do so is still there.

The second and third part of this interview will be available in Monday’s League Express.