In bringing Wigan Warriors under the same ownership as the town’s third-tier soccer team Wigan Athletic, the recent takeover of the English rugby league giants is “about creating a positive experience on the impacts of lives of Wiganers”, according to the club’s chief executive Kris Radlinski.
Speaking to Sportcal (GlobalData Sport) at a media event yesterday (January 22) about the significance of the newly unified ownership, Radlinski said: “The impact on the town is probably more important than results, if I’m being honest.”
The Warriors, who won the 2023 Super League and went on to also win the Grand Final, were bought in December by Wigan-born Mike Danson, who also owns GlobalData, the parent company of Sportcal, and who bought Wigan Athletic earlier last year.
Both clubs have struggled financially in recent seasons, not least because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw games played behind closed doors in both sports, wiping out gate receipts for a period at their shared DW Stadium home.
It is hoped that the takeover can build bridges between the fanbases of the two clubs, which have not always seen eye to eye, and that this in turn can serve as a springboard to greater on-field and commercial success.
“A key objective of mine, and both clubs going forward, is to try and mend that and get people of both teams supporting the town of Wigan,” explained Radlinski.
Ahead of the media day, he had said of Danson’s plans for the clubs: “Mike envisions a unification of these two organizations to forge a sporting powerhouse that not only achieves success on the field but also leaves a significant, positive impact on the town and its residents.”
This focus on the local community is not new for the Warriors. The club is an intrinsic part of a local area in which rugby league is a way of life, and many of its first-team players continue to be academy products – even with the pulling power of being the most successful rugby league team globally.
“I think, if you look at some of the statistics over the last 20 or 30 years of the players that we've brought through who we've had since twelve years old who have gone through to play for the first team, the statistics are probably unrivaled in this sport,” said Radlinski. “It's very much part of our business plan, and it's very much part of the town's identity as well.”
“If you know you can sign with Wigan at 12 at an introductory level and then move into scholarship and there's a genuine pathway, which you can see other players have followed, then it becomes achievable. I think it's something that is very much part of our focus, and it’s something we invest very heavily in because we know it'll do us good down the line.
“History has proven that we're not only creating great players for our club, but we create players who've gone to play for other clubs in the game as well.”
For Matt Peet, the Warriors’ head coach, the club’s takeover won’t change this approach.
“We’ve had decades of doing this, producing our own players, so I think it'll be a continuation of that,” he told Sportcal. “We’ll make sure there's a pathway for them, making sure that the pathway’s well resourced in terms of coaching, and there’s a confidence in the top squad to bring these players through and give them an opportunity.”
Peet believes the club’s deep ties with the local community make the process of producing academy talent easier.
“A lot of our players have come through the local community clubs, the local schools, so they see the value in it,” he explained. “But I think even when you talk to players from overseas, they're all proud to represent us, and they’re all proud to immerse themselves in the community.
“There's no doubt that it pays us back, whether that’s through the support we get, the well wishes we get, our corporate sponsors that come from the community. But also, those engagements, they make our players more well-rounded, I feel.”
Peet by no means pays only lip service to this community involvement. A Wiganer himself, he knows the importance of such outreach in a town where one in five children are living in poverty, and he talks of it as “the responsibility of us as a club”.
In 2021 when he took over as the Warriors’ head coach, Peet rescheduled training sessions so that players and staff could spend time on community engagements during the day. These include the likes of school assemblies, training sessions with community groups, coaching clinics, hospital visits, and work on local issues such as homelessness, poverty, mental health, and knife crime.
“To me, to say that it's important that you engage with the community and then leave it as an add-on in the evening or at the weekend when the players should be with their families, I think is not giving it the credit it deserves.”
He added: “All of the players understand the responsibility that they have, and, as well, it’s up to us when we’re going out in the community that we make it enjoyable for the players – and we encourage them to get better at it and let them know why it's important.
“I feel like you get the players on the journey with you when you're doing things like that. Certainly, I feel like whenever you break that barrier down between the players and the fans or the players and the community it becomes an energy you can feel on game day.”
That energy will be on full display on February 24. During yesterday’s press event, it was announced that Wigan’s blockbuster match against the Penrith Panthers of Australia’s top-tier National Rugby League had sold out, with 10,000 tickets sold in the first hour alone.
The World Club Challenge clash is the biggest game in rugby league, and the Warriors will be vying for a record-equalling fifth title at the DW Stadium – in front of over 25,000 fans for whom the club is far more than just a local sports team.