A Q&A with Widnes CEO James Rule – Part 2

In the second instalment of our extensive Q&A interview with James Rule, Matt Shaw asks about the club’s financial situation, the stadium situation and more.

Part 1| Part 3

MS: People want to know why there isn’t external money. Other clubs may have a big investor, is that availability of funds simply not there?

JR: If you look historically, Steve O’Connor pushed the club forward single-handedly before I joined the club. He was the owner and sole shareholder. I’m not breaking confidentiality when I say that he spent millions getting the club out of administration and back into the Super League. Steve was clear though that he needed to ‘teach a fisherman how to fish’ – the club needed to ultimately be able to stand on its own two feet and sustain itself,
When I came in, I developed a new board structure. There’s five board members and we’ve all invested significantly, but there comes a time when that resource is exhausted. That’s why it is so important that the club generates and sustains its own income. We don’t have the luxury of some other clubs, who essentially have a blank cheque to underwrite their business every year. That being said, it would be disrespectful not to recognise the investment that has come in from the board.
Of course, we’re receptive to discussions with credible people who may have an interest in investing in the club. That’s something that I’ve put on record previously.

MS: What is Steve’s current role in the club? Does he play an active role?

JR: Steve recently emigrated to Australia. As I’ve said, he was very clear with me six years ago that he needed me to build a sustainable club and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Steve, to his eternal credit, stepped back and allowed me to put the plans for that in place with his full autonomy and trust.
He invested significantly, but that was predominantly before my arrival at the club, in digging the Vikings out administration and delivering us into the Super League. Since then, we have had to run it as a sustainable business.
Steve’s passion remains undimmed. Prior to emigrating he was at every game and we talk regularly, so he’s well connected with what we’re doing. But he hasn’t been actively hands-on in an executive role for a number of years.

MS: So, to confirm, the club is receptive to new investment?

JR: Absolutely. We all care about moving the club forward – none of the ownership group are involved for an ego-trip. The board members genuinely care about the club, and we’ve invested our own money with the intention of supporting the progress of Widnes Vikings.
We talk a lot in our organisation about having a ‘One Club’ philosophy, which means that we all have a valuable stake in this club. Yes, there has been investment from the Board, but we are incredibly grateful for the significant and invaluable investment that has been made by our commercial partners and supporters too, whether that’s our Stronghold Members, lottery members, or people purchasing tickets or merchandise.
On the field we’re not awash with superstars but we punch above our weight – the same is said off-field. The collective support and unity of all our stakeholders is what will drive this club forward.
As I said earlier, if potential credible investors want to be part of that journey, we would of course be interested in exploring opportunities with them.

MS: Match revenue streams are an issue aren’t they? As a tenant of the stadium how does that affect you compared to a club that owns the ground?

JR: The club signed new ‘Heads of Terms’ with Halton Council last year, which is a significant improvement on our previous occupancy arrangement. This was the product of years of work, behind the scenes, to secure a better deal for the club. It’s created some exciting new opportunities, including more options to generate revenue through stadium advertising.
But you’re right, we don’t get food and beverage sales, for example. We have a small number of boxes in the stadium, but we don’t have exclusivity. That’s unique in our sport, compared to almost every other club, who either control or take a percentage of those streams. That’s not a reality for us, so we need to find ways to step around these constraints.

MS: What’s the new agreement in place?

JR: Those Heads of Terms represent a new five-year agreement, so that should give people confidence that we’re committed to the town Widnes. It was documented that people were expressing interest in purchasing the club and that’s fact.
Without breaching the NDA’s that were signed, parties were interested in taking the club out of the area, where they felt thought more money could be generated. As a board we didn’t feel that was appropriate – everyone has put far too much blood, sweat and tears into this club to simply see it taken away from the area.
The new agreement gives us security of tenure and an opportunity for new revenue generation, so is a genuine breakthrough for us.

MS: Denis comes in for his fair share of criticism. Do you as a board think it’s justified?

JR: You try and apply facts and logic. I’m not embarrassed to say we’ll be one of the lowest spending teams in the competition, if not the lowest. That’s just a reality of the constraints that we need to currently work within at this club. Naturally, Denis isn’t on a level playing field compared to some of his competitors.

MS: Just to interrupt you there, where are you on the cap?

JR: We have a significant six-figure sum, more than £300,000 of headroom against the cap. Since our return to Super League, we’ve consistently raised our spend on players, and it’s our aspiration to continue to do that.
We have a coach coming up against teams who are up to cap and beyond. Within salary cap regulations, teams are allowed to utilise marquee player allowances, utilise prize money for an additional spend, or target rugby union players – who are given dispensation on the cap. All of these factors further the disparity between teams like Widnes Vikings and our larger rivals.
When you look at how the team has progressed under Denis, other than last year it has had continuous improvement pretty much every year, and two seasons ago we secured our highest ever Super League finish. You then look at why people are frustrated and that’s because we’ve had some challenging times in the last two years. That frustration gravitates naturally to the head coach or the chief executive.
Nobody in professional sport can ever hope to have a guaranteed job. Like everyone at the club, Denis’ performances will be reviewed and we’ll look at what he’s achieved. However, the board need to balance any assessment of Denis and the results on the field against the challenges he has faced getting his starting 17 out.
Denis absolutely has the backing of the players. Does he get their effort every week? Without a shadow of a doubt. If you look back two seasons ago, when we were less affected by injuries, we had our best ever finish in Super League.
I understand the flak and criticism, but I’m also balanced enough to see the disruption, I know how much we resource we spend and how much of it is sat in the stand. Across sport, people always think the solution to a challenge is to sack the coach. But if you sack the coach it doesn’t bring the injured players back any quicker. Our issue in the past two seasons has been injury, not coaching.

MS: You come in for criticism yourself, some of it is turning personal, as a man that must hurt?

JR: You know it comes with the territory and I’m there to be shot at. I feel the responsibility of being a custodian of a great and proud club, and I genuinely want to see this club progress and for our supporters to enjoy some great days.
Widnes Vikings is my seven day a week existence. People don’t see the efforts behind the scenes, working to manage the challenges of the club and help it to grow- there’s no switch off. I don’t have the historical link of a supporter who has been watching the team for 70 years, but I know there’s not been a minute where I’ve not been thinking about how to make Widnes Vikings stronger over the last six years.
As a club, you need solidarity from your supporters, and we get this from the majority of them. I’m very grateful for their commitment. For those who are unsure about we are currently doing, I hope that the current approach will be validated in the seasons to come. We are developing and retaining an outstanding group of locally produced, talented players, who can be the backbone of the team for years to come and the driving force to achieve significant success. So many of the most successful Super League clubs have been built around a core of locally developed players – Leeds being the classic example in recent history. We are also striving to complement that with exciting signings, to help deliver the success that we all desire.