Ian Lenagan Q&A: League Express meets the Wigan chairman

It was a huge week for British rugby league last week – perhaps for all the wrong reasons. With leading Super League clubs appearing to confirm the end of the Super 8s – only for other clubs and the RFL to deny that was the case – it was difficult to work out exactly what is going on. League Express writer Matthew Shaw met with Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan to get his take on the current situation.

MS: Ian, how pleased are you that you can finally start discussing the future of the game?

IL: It’s been a difficult six months really because we’ve not been able to speak out until a clear direction of travel for Super League including funding for the Championship and promotion/relegation had been confirmed, as it now has by Super League. With 10 Super League clubs in complete support out of 12 – and on many details 11 out of 12 – and supportive discussions with the RFL Board, together with Robert Elstone having started as Chief Executive of Super League, we believe now is the time to let everyone know clearly the position of Super League. We also believe this is the right direction for the whole of rugby league with Super League financially supporting the Championship, the England teams and the RFL directly from within Super League’s broadcasting revenues. We could have waited another month until everything was signed, but the collective support of the RFL Board, particularly Brian Barwick and the non-executive directors, is strong. There are final details to be sorted with the Championship but since Super League has agreed to maintain exactly the same amount of funding to Championship and Championship 1 and prefers to see promotion and relegation, it is difficult to see how anything can reasonably be objected to.

MS: But clubs outside of Super League have hit out claiming nothing has been agreed yet regarding the structure. You spoke quite confidently about this being in place for next year, so how are you so sure when the RFL and clubs outside Super League are saying it is not the case?

IL: We made it very clear at our press conference that there are details still to be agreed before the matter is finalised but felt it very important to declare Super League’s definite direction in order to clarify much of the misrepresentation which has been publicised widely by a small group accusing Super League variously of “doing a money-grab”, “doing a power-grab”, refusing to fund the Championship and ceasing promotion/relegation. A very small number of clubs – one from Super League and two from the top of the Championship – have spoken out. We believe that the vast majority of clubs, fans and media support the direction for Rugby League outlined last week. The decision four years ago to move to a structure of Super8s/Middle 8s was made on a Super League vote of only 7 – 6 with 1 abstention, yet the losing 6 clubs (including mine – Wigan) supported quietly the majority decision throughout the three year period. In contrast, it is disappointing that Gary Hetherington and Leeds have ignored the very large majority decision and spoiled selfishly what should have been a good week of positive publicity for Rugby League.

MS: The proposed structure of one up, one down, was that the ideal outcome or was there an alternate structure you would have preferred?

IL: There were a small number of clubs who wanted to discuss a return to licensing and concern by Super League clubs of the prospect of relegation but the Super League clubs listened willingly to the RFL view and to the rest of the game and the Championship that promotion/relegation was essential. Personally, I have always thought promotion and relegation were important because it’s part of the English sporting culture which I’ve been brought up with it in so many different sports. Like so many things in life, you have to find a middle ground and, for the vast majority of SL clubs getting rid of the Super 8s with its negative effect on attendances, broadcasting and the potential jeopardy for four Super League clubs out of 12, was the essential major feature of these changes. Whilst the lower levels of the game are essential and should be funded and have promotion opportunities, the top tier of the game – as with all other sports – must be the prime focus for publicity, media, broadcasting, marketing and promotion.

MS: You said you were committed to funding the Championship until 2021, but do you appreciate that some clubs will naturally have some fears beyond that. What would your message be to them?

IL:We in Super League share completely the fear of loss of funding beyond 2021. That is why we are taking well-planned action now to give rugby league its best chance of continued funding for all levels of the game by a revitalised Super League competition as the top tier, attractive to broadcasters. Super League has an ongoing commitment to fund the game beyond 2021 but that can only continue with a strong competition valued by the broadcasters and the watching public which achieves a good replacement broadcasting deal from 2022 onwards. That shows why it is essential that these changes in competition structure need to start in 2019. Currently the SL broadcasting deal is for £40m a year but Super League clubs receive only £26m of that. The rest funds the RFL, England and the rest of the game – including £4.9 million to the Championship. Some people might think that’s insufficient focus on promoting Super League for the good of the whole game. I certainly sit in that camp and believe that is one of the reasons Super League has faded in the last ten years. The intention is not to put the money into SL club owner’s pockets but to promote Super League professionally, extensively and with focus. The principle confirmed by the Super League Board throughout the past six months – like the Premier League in Football – is to continue to fund the rest of the game, including Championship and League 1. However, to do that for the benefit of the whole game, Super League needs to go forward.

MS: What happens if the next broadcasting deal is substantially less lucrative than the current one?

IL: There is a lot less money available for all aspects of the game! We should be working together now – all levels of the game – to ensure success in following the clear direction established by Super League with agreement in principle by the RFL. The noisy opposition by one solo Super League club and a small number of Championship clubs who currently take a disproportionately large portion of the Championship distributions should be left behind so that we can move forward as a game.

MS: There has been talk that distribution game wide has been an issue. Do you agree with that?

IL: There is no issue or complaint within Super League or Championship 1 where all clubs receive the same basic distribution – Super League clubs basic distribution of around £1.7m and Championship 1 clubs £75,000. The talk has only been by and about Championship clubs where a view could be taken that the funding is distributed unfairly in favour of the top four clubs. There is noise about Championship distributions among some potential top four Championship clubs because clubs 1-4 currently receive £750k, £700k, £500k, £450k whereas clubs 5–12 receive only from £275k down to £150k dependent on finishing position. It is not surprising to see some of these higher clubs being publicly unhappy with any talk of any change within Championship funding. To be clear, whilst Super League has the opinion that all Championship clubs should receive the same, it is our current position that that is a matter for Championship clubs to decide. Super League has committed to pay the same total amount. However, it is interesting to look at the most successful Rugby League structure and its funding levels in comparison – the Australian NRL. The comparative in the NRL between the Top-Tier and the equivalent of our Championship is between around $6,000,000 per NRL club and $100,000 per second tier club. Both levels are successful.

MS: Halifax chairman Mark Moore has claimed it was proposed that £1m would be taken from Championship and League 1’s funding with the structure change. Is that true?

IL: That was the original Super League proposal at the first discussion meeting but, to allow quick progress, SL increased this to the full funding at the second meeting with the Championship negotiating group. Presumably, Mr Moore was not correctly informed of the change by his Championship team.

MS: We’ve had the proposed structure in the past, or something very similar. The sport moved away from that, it has moved away from several different structures. Why is it right to come back to it now?

IL: We moved away from it because we were persuaded by increased money and the RFL CEO at that time that Super 8s/Middle 8s was the right way. We are now utterly convinced that it’s not having run with it for four years. We believe it essential to have focus on Super League primarily with dedicated management within Super League. It is clear from attendances and broadcasters that the public, the media and the fans are not interested in a League where top-tier sides play second-tier sides in half-empty stadiums with part-time players. Their place is in Cup competitions. Whilst licensing had done well for us in terms of improved facilities, it was decided that years without promotion and relegation was not the way to go.