An in-depth interview with Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan

Ian Lenagan has conceded Wigan desperately need to provide excitement for their supporters once again, while also insisting that the club intends to be in a position to break even at the very least financially by the end of next year.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with League Express, Lenagan has lifted the lid on both the current state of the Warriors and his thoughts of the entire game, including a passionate defence of Robert Elstone against his critics, who argue the Super League CEO has provided little in the way of discernible changes to the sport during his time in charge.

No regrets
The Warriors’ defence of the Super League title they won in 2018 was unconvincing this year. A disastrous start to the season on the field, coupled with the farcical scenes surrounding Shaun Edwards’ U-turn, were countered by a strong finish to the year, which left them within just one game of the Grand Final.

With Adrian Lam in permanent change for 2020 and a number of new recruits, hopes are high that Wigan can challenge again, and Lenagan is frank about their shortcomings in 2019.

“I hate to say it, but we didn’t deserve to be in the Grand Final and we clawed our way back to within one game of it through sheer effort and endeavour,” he said.

“The Grand Final in the end was a good game, and if it had been Wigan versus St Helens, it might have been disappointing because it wouldn’t have had the same public appeal as Salford getting there.”

Lenagan also insists he has no regrets about the decision to approach Edwards, even if his high-profile rebuttal was a damaging exercise in terms of public relations.

“I think it was worth the risk to try and get Shaun both in terms of his profile and the fact that he’s a born winner. He’s won things wherever he’s been, and there’s no doubting he is a winner.

“It was a difficult period for us, but we’ve come out of it well in my opinion. Would I have done it differently? Well I’d have still appointed him, and I’d have handled it the same way. Shaun had a right to decide not to come, and he used that right.”

Bringing back the buzz
Many feel that the decline in Wigan’s crowds, which have fallen from over 16,000 in 2012 to 11,432 last season, is partly due to the style of rugby they played.

Lenagan concedes that there is a desperate need to provide an entertainment factor again at the DW Stadium, and said: “We wanted to play a more open style of rugby because Wigan fans expect that, but give Shaun Wane his due – he was here for seven years and he was appointed for one reason, to win things. After a certain period of getting used to winning, you want a little more. You want excitement on top of it,

“Just winning is not enough here. You have to be entertaining, and none of that is meant with any disrespect to Shaun Wane, because Shaun did everything we wanted him to do as coach. But you could begin to see towards the end that we needed to play differently.

“Castleford two years ago played exciting rugby and people wanted to watch them. We need the attendances to come back up again, and players like Bevan French and Jackson Hasting will make a big difference. Look at Great Britain. They played dull rugby, but whenever Jackson played, you were watching with excitement to see what he did. The same applies for the hooker; Daryl Clark is an exciting, edge-of-the-seat player but Josh Hodgson plays differently. It works in the NRL, but we want exciting rugby in Super League, and particularly in Wigan.”

Financial woes
Much has been made of the fact the Warriors’ most recent public accounts showed a loss of nearly £1.4 million. Lenagan concedes that various factors played a part, but cited specific reasons for the losses suffered by the club.

“One reason is that you can’t change players in less than two to three years,” he said.

“For example, last year we had made certain assumptions on the playing budget and we ended up wrong to the tune of £250,000. That was players we couldn’t get out who we wanted to get out, that were still in contract but didn’t fit with where we are going. That’s a negative, that you’ve got to manage your playing budget very effectively. This year we’re doing it better, and you’ve seen over the last two months that half a dozen players have left because they don’t fit into the squad.”

And Lenagan insists the financial outlook moving forward is much healthier.

“The last financial year ended at the end of November, so we actually know where we are in that regard. What was just over £1.3 million will come down to around £500,000 this time, and then the following year, it will be break even at least. To come back from a £1.3 million loss to break even in two years is very hard work, but we’re on target. Our season tickets and playing budget are where we expect it to be, and we’re nearly there with sponsorship. Providing all those things work, and the tickets come in as we expect them to, we’ll be more than okay.”

Ill-fated trip to Oz

Lenagan has made no secret of the fact their ill-fated trip to Australia last year played a part in such a hefty loss. But he took a swipe at those Down Under who suggested it would be a bigger hit.

“Only one thing went wrong with that trip, and that was the ANZ Stadium game (against South Sydney),” he explained.
“The Wollongong game, when Wigan played Hull, met its targets and was absolutely fine. We wrongly expected, or our Australian friends did, that a big crowd would be there. They told us 20-30,000 would be there, but of course it was much less, somewhere in the region of 8,000.”

However, Lenagan insists it was a worthwhile exercise, saying: “That’s the only thing that caused the loss, and while it was significant in terms of revenue, if you look at the goodwill it created, it was worth doing.

“Super League is now well-thought of by the NRL because they recognise the quality of the game here, and I think we and Hull were quite instrumental in making that happen with the trip. They saw what an exciting game Super League can be: it’s a lot less boring than the NRL. They’re better in that they traditionally beat us, but it isn’t quite as exciting.”

In defence of Elstone

Meanwhile, Lenagan has defended Robert Elstone, saying that Super League is much better than this time last year under his leadership. He said: “I think they’re totally wrong. You don’t see it immediately in the public eye. We see it behind the scenes, and he’s done a great job. He’s taken the competition 60 per cent forward and he’s been negotiating with his hands tied behind his back due to all the mess we had going on before. It’s still not as far forward as we’d like, but the clubs have never been more united.”

And Lenagan believes that relations between all aspects of the game are healthy, so much so, in fact, that there is a call to create a Professional Game Board, much like one which exists in football, to take on the RFL about certain issues.

“That entails Super League, Championship and League 1 being able to say to the RFL together what they want to do,” said Lenagan.

“It’s got a bit 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.”

Broadcast plans
The state of the sport’s broadcast deal at the end of 2021 is a line in the sand moment in the eyes of many, and Lenagan insist Super League wants to be ready to take the rights to market next summer.

“It’s a 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.”

However, Lenagan says that a Premier League-style package deal, where the sport would split its rights up and offer them to various broadcasters, is unlikely.

“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 want the right to negotiate far better together as a game. It’s a different world to football. But 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.”

© League Express (Mon 9th Dec 2019)