On October 14, 2023, rugby league side Wigan Warriors defeated Catalan Dragons 10-2 to win the Rugby Super League grand final for the first time since 2018. The team has won rugby league’s top-tier competition, now known as the Super League and formerly known as the First Division, a record 23 times, cementing itself as the most successful club in UK rugby league.
The following December, the club was bought by Wigan-born businessman Mike Danson, who also owns GlobalData, the parent company of Sportcal. Danson is also the owner of the Wigan Athletic soccer side that currently plays in the third tier of English football, but won major silverware as recently as 2013, marking the first time that Wigan’s two major sports teams have been under the same ownership since Dave Whelan sold the Warriors in 2007.
Although fans of the two clubs have not always been on the same page, the pair share a home in the DW Stadium, which Danson also owns, and Wigan Warriors chief executive Kris Radlinski has expressed his hope that the businessman’s takeover of the Warriors can have a positive effect on the town, as much as it will on the fortunes of both clubs.
Speaking to Sportcal (GlobalData Sport) after a media day surrounding Danson’s takeover of the club, Radlinski said: “[Wigan] is very humble, and there are responsibilities that the football club and the rugby league club have, to come together to try and help the people of this town.”
While Radlinski states that: “There will be collaboration on a boardroom level, and certainly on a professional level,” that will help to streamline operations and benefit both teams, the single ownership of Wigan’s top sports teams may also pose issues.
“Hopefully, we can try and try to collaborate between the fans, which at the moment is probably one of the biggest challenges that we've got. It's almost a toxic thing at the moment, which we have to try and mend, and one that's high up on my agenda to try and achieve. But I think it's an exciting time for both teams," he says.
While mending fences between the town’s partisan sports fans is high on the agenda, it is hardly the only thing on the agenda for the two clubs, both of which have struggled financially in recent years in the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Radlinski has shed some light on the Warriors’ commercial strategy that he hopes will continue to see the club go from strength to strength both on the field and off it, and how the Wigan Athletic partnership can aid that.
Like most sports teams in the UK, the core tenet of Wigan Warriors’ financial strategy is the money it receives yearly from its league’s TV rights deal. Rugby league’s Super League has been broadcast domestically exclusively on UK pay-TV heavyweight Sky Sports since the competition’s inception in 1996. In October of 2023, the pair agreed a new three-year deal that will take the partnership into its 30th year.
While Sky will broadcast every single game of the men’s competition live, including the playoffs and the grand final, the value of the deal relative to that of previous years diminished greatly, which has led many to criticize Sky and attribute the declining TV rights money to the similar decline in spending power of the league.
“We’re very much heavily reliant on broadcast distribution,” says Radlinski, continuing: “Over the last few years, [TV money] has decreased as the broadcast market has become more challenging … which is unfortunate when you consider player salaries are going up, but revenues coming into the game are going the other way.”
Radlinski acknowledges the positive impact Sky Sports has had throughout its long-standing partnership with the Super League, however, he admits that global events, particularly Covid-19, have taken their toll on both the league and the broadcaster in recent years, which has led to the current situation in which some pundits are suggesting in national newspapers that the sport is weaker than ever.
“I think Sky Sports have been an incredible partner for the sport for 30 years, there's no doubt about that, but unfortunately, they're not immune from the challenges of the financial world, either. I think particular rugby league wasn't in such a strong place before Covid. There were possibilities during Covid that [the league] might not survive. We've now agreed another deal with Sky and it's up to us, along with (Super League’s strategic partner) IMG to give it everything we've got.”
“The next decade really is the most crucial in [Super League] history,” Radlinski asserts, referencing the precarious nature of the Super League’s finances. “If we don't get this right, we will struggle to get another TV deal at the end of it.”
Despite issues with the declining state of the league’s TV deal, RL Commercial, the commercial body established to address the future of the sport in England, announced this week a partnership with global sports agency Endeavor’s streaming wing to launch a new OTT platform to cover the Super League.
SuperLeague+ will cover all 167 matches from the 12-team 2024 Super League live season in overseas markets, starting with the season opener on February 15. “One thing it will give us is more eyeballs on the sport than ever before,” says Radlinski, outlining what he believes the service can offer the league.
“The fact that you can watch 167 games and stream it brings, it brings us in line with other sports and the innovation that they're doing. So hopefully that's an extra revenue stream that we've never had before, and it will bring a bit of life into the sports as well.”
In the end, for Wigan Warriors, it is all about driving more revenue first and foremost. If the reality of the TV deal is that its value is declining while costs increase, then all of the league’s franchises will have to seek out different ways to gain an advantage.
“We need to look at other ways to drive revenue, and to try and close the deficit," he says.
UK sports betting firm Betfred has sponsored rugby’s Super League since 2017, and in October 2023 announced the continuation of its support of the league through to at least 2026. The commitment, which will end up being nine-years at minimum, has helped the sport immensely according to Radlinski, and while TV-rights money will always be the core tenet of a top rugby league club’s financial model, the growth of sponsorship revenue for a sport that has often been undervalued by potential investors is something that the Warriors chief executive hopes to continue.
“Betfred have been long term supporters of the game and they do a wonderful job. [The latest renewal] was a considerable increase of investment into the sport, which is great.”
Radlinski reveals that the club’s sponsorship revenue is up around 15% year-on-year, a testament to the positive commercial growth of the team over this period. “It’s a great opportunity now and good things are happening. It’s up to us to maximize.”
Another area that Wigan Warriors is growing in thanks to the single ownership of both Wigan sports teams under Danson is the use of its home venue, the DW Stadium, outside of matchdays.
Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors have shared the venue since 1999, but rarely have both sides benefitted together from the stadium. Now though, the stadium, as well as both clubs, are under the ownership of Danson, allowing for the expansion of the single ownership’s revenue strategy beyond matchdays.
“[Wigan Warriors] have been tenants at the (DW) Stadium for over 20 years, but the stadium has never been an asset which the club has ever been allowed to get engaged in,” Radlinski explains.
“Now my remit under the single ownership is to maximize the asset and ensure that it's an events center over 300 days a year with things going on, and [ensure] it’s a hub of activity for the town and its businesses, not just on matchday.”
To capitalize on the 25,133-capacity asset, the club is hosting a concert series featuring well-known UK acts such as Noel Gallagher coming to play at the venue.
Naturally, for a sports team, ticketing and attendance also play a major role, especially when the performances are good enough to attract fans.
Wigan Warriors drew an average attendance of 13,497 to the DW across the winning 2023 Super League season, the highest either club has managed since the Warriors’ 2017. This tally was highlighted by the bumper 24,275 crowd for the team’s game against title rivals St Helens, the most the Warriors have attracted to a Super League game at the DW since 2005.
This upward trend in attendance spurred by the teams’ performance is set to continue, with the club’s highly anticipated World Club Challenge match against Australian National Rugby League champions Penrith Panthers scheduled for February 24 at the DW Stadium already a sell-out.
“We've sold out the DW, and everything that goes with that, the retail operation, the hospitality, the advertising, etc. will all benefit from that. So that's a big tick of the box for us from trying to try to bridge this gap of the loss of broadcast revenue,” he says.
The visit of high-profile competitors to Wigan has also aided Wigan Athletic, who drew 22,870 to the DW when English giants Manchester United visited in the League Cup.
For the Warriors, season ticket sales are up around 18% year-on-year, and as attendances grow more consistently across both clubs, the aim is for the stadium to provide an even better platform for the non-matchday revenue to supplement, in the end helping the club to insulate itself from the falling value of its TV deal.