This is the second half of our two-part Q&A with Wigan owner Ian Lenagan. Part one touched on the Warriors’ finances, the prospect of taking games Down Under and more. Now, Lenagan offers his thoughts on the overall state of the game – and Super League’s prospects under Robert Elstone.
AB: What’s your take on Super League as things stand?
IL: We have a five-year plan which starts from here. It’s very clear. We thought we’d started it last year because we thought that the departure of the Super 8s would take immediate effect, but it’s taken a year for it to start to have an effect. We were pleased with the play-off attendances at Wigan last year, and we played Salford twice, which wouldn’t normally be a great pull. We’ve always said that the thing that has held us back as a competition is the Super 8s, for all the reasons we’ve said before. It’s now clear it had a bad effect on our game, and we’ve arrested the slump.
AB: And at Wigan? What about the drop-off in crowds?
IL: Well, we did marginally better than we did in 2018. But we’re looking for long-term growth now, back to the sort of level they were a few years ago, which was around the 16,000 mark. We’ve dropped to 11,500 or somewhere in that bracket. It’s still very good, but it’s not where we need it to be for us to be as buoyant financially, because that’s where it’s had the biggest hit. We’re starting with a game against Warrington, which will be great for us, then we’ve got Toronto coming, which includes Sonny Bill Williams. That should be great for the whole competition. Our comms guy, Matt Hennessey, is very capable at building a strong profile and that will hopefully help the crowds come back.
AB: 2019 was Robert Elstone’s first full year in charge: is the competition where you thought it would be?
IL: I think it’s not as far advanced as we’d like it to be. It’s at least 50 or 60 per cent better than it was..
AB: In what sense?
IL: Almost every sense. The 12 clubs have never been so together. The camaraderie and the judgement-making process is healthy. The two-referee debate is an example of this: that even though there’s a clear split there, everybody gets together and backs the majority decision. That’s a big advantage. Whether it’s marquee players, shot clock, whatever.. we have the ability to implement change very quickly. It’s even dripping into the Championship, which is a very good thing.
AB: Does Super League have good relations with the lower-leagues?
IL: It’s much better now. There’s a good mutual understanding between the leagues, particularly now one troublesome individual in particular is out of the picture. That good feeling will continue, particularly if we do what we want, which involves setting up a Professional Game Board. That entails Super League, Championship and League 1 being able to say to the RFL together what they want to do. It’s got a bit lost at the moment, because the PGB they’re talking about isn’t what it’s supposed to be, because it has entities like the community game in it. This would be a board who has representatives from all the professional leagues and can air issues on the professional game.
AB: What issues could a board like this tackle with the RFL?
IL: Well it’s a copy of the structure in football; there they have the Premier League, the EFL and the FA all sat on it. It’s chaired by the EFL chairman or Premier League chairman, and you have the chief executive of all the bodies coming to the meetings. That’s a powerful thing. If you get the chief executives of the RFL, Super League and an elected chief of the Championship, the game would go forward dramatically. But it is doing anyway because Super League is driving it forward.
AB: With that in mind, how do you view the return of reserve grade rugby?
IL: We’ve been pushing for it for a long time. There’s no better way to develop young players quickly than have them playing against other men in a reserve league.
AB: We can’t avoid the TV deal renegotiations. What is the game actually doing to be ready for post-2021?
IL: Look, it’s a huge, huge part of our future, this deal. Robert and a lot of other chairmen are keen that we get things actioned quickly to be ready for this. We’ve done a lot of work on it already, and it’s vital that by the middle of next year, we’re ready with a tender and a package we can offer. People don’t realise how much work is being done on broadcast deals. We want the whole of rugby league to be supported but we have to get enough money from the TV negotiations, and we’ve got to make things attractive. We’re talking about doing things differently, and when we get to the end of the process in February, we’ll know what our offering is.
AB: We’ve seen Amazon recently stream the Premier League.. could Super League split its rights up across multiple broadcasters?
IL: If we’re logical about it, it should be one package for one broadcaster. I don’t think we have the right to claim anything, but we would have the right to negotiate far better together as a game. It’s a different world to football.
AB: What do you say to Robert’s critics, who say that he doesn’t done anything for the sport?
IL: I think they’re totally wrong. You don’t see what’s happening in the public eye. We see it behind the scenes, and he’s done a great job. He’s taken the competition forward as I say, and he’s been in negotiations with his hands tied behind his back due to all the mess we had going on before.
AB: How have Toronto been welcomed to Super League?
IL: It wasn’t possible to welcome them until their first meeting, but Bob Hunter has gone down very well. He’s a capable man with a great pedigree, and David Argyle deserves credit for getting him in through the door. That’s a sensible move. The Sonny Bill Williams deal is obviously positive for everyone.
AB: Do you think they could really attract extra home fans for Wolfpack games?
IL: I think so. I’ve never been a great believer that a signing puts bums on seats, but it will make things more attractive. It makes a rather dull Thursday evening game against Toronto suddenly much more exciting.
AB: They’ve made no secret of cap and marquee increases, where do you stand?
IL: I don’t think the cap is necessarily the factor in this. It was interesting to hear some other views on the cap which are difficult to comprehend, like reducing it to £1million, and I think that would be a step backwards, but we could easily find the way to have a third marquee player, assuming we get our finances sorted the way we want. We’re being more ruthless with players who are coming through at Wigan, and what we still do is provide a large percentage of all the players across Super League. The players who don’t quite make it here play for other teams. That speaks very well for the players we develop.