After it was announced in 2005 that London Broncos would become Harlequins RL and move back to The Stoop, new owner and lifelong rugby league fan, Ian Lenagan, spoke to me for Thirteen. Lenagan is now the chairman of reigning Super League champions, Wigan.
Ian, it’s been widely reported that you’re from Wigan. Were you a Wigan fan? What rugby league background do you have?
I was a Wigan fan. I’ve been watching rugby league for 50 years. I’m 59 now. I went to school in Wigan, then in St Helens. Then I lived in Leeds. I never watched St Helens as a fan – you can’t if you were brought up in Wigan! But I watched Leeds for quite a while and went to Wembley with them in 1978 when they beat St Helens. Since then I’ve been in the south of England for 20 odd years and you don’t get as many opportunities to go to live matches. Wigan will always be in my heart but for rugby league to be successful, it needs a strong team in the capital and being involved in moving the Broncos forward is great.
To what extent will junior players be shared between the two codes? Will there be an opportunity to get more union players playing league?
If you look at the weaknesses of the Broncos it doesn’t have a senior academy side. There’s a junior academy team and teams for 14-year-olds upwards. So one of the things we have to deal with as a matter of urgency is getting an Under-21 side. Also, we don’t really have a scouting structure or a way of introducing rugby league to players early in their careers. Obviously we will gain from the fact that Harlequins have that. There’s quite a lot of players coming up through the Harlequins set up who aren’t necessarily the right shape for rugby union. So there’s obviously a possibility that there will be lads who are better suited to league and we can tap into that. But we have to control our own destiny and the two things we have to do are to get a senior academy side and to form an effective scouting system in the south of England. We have a magnificent, captive area and the Broncos have never been able to afford to do that. Tony Rea, David Hughes, myself and Nic Cartwright have already established they’re the two things we have to do.
What dual marketing ideas are you looking at, at the moment?
The most important thing we can do is advertise that we are here and that rugby league is here and we’ve got a nice environment. We couldn’t really do that before could we? While Brentford have been good to us, it’s not exactly a spectator friendly place. The car parking situation is not good, there’s no hospitality boxes, it’s very difficult to mix and that’s common in a football environment. In marketing terms, we’ve got to get brand recognition and Harlequins is a name that everyone knows about. Okay, it’s going to be rugby league now but we’ll get an immediate spin off from the awareness of Harlequins and rugby. Secondly, we’ve got the chance to pick up spectators who want to watch union in the winter and league in the summer. Thirdly, we capitalise on the superb publicity we’ve had recently, all of which has been positive from a rugby league viewpoint. So, the marketing becomes obvious. We do the basics well now. Nic Cartwright has done marvellously with a small budget but, now, just because of location and brand I think it will be an easier job to attract more spectators and to get a proper quality profile for our game.
So will Nic have a bigger budget from now?
When you say bigger budget, let’s be clear. We’re not a club that wants to make losses. Look at Chelsea. Everyone knows about them. As long as Abramovich is there it doesn’t matter. In terms of breaking even, which is what the RFL wants us to do and, of course, myself as a good professional businessman wants us to do, David and I could throw money at the problem but all that will happen is as soon as we are sick of doing that the company will be in difficulty again. So we’re not doing that. We make a loss at the moment at the Broncos and those losses are covered by me and David but I guarantee you that in 12 months that loss will have more than halved and I guarantee you that in two years it will have gone. At that point we will have a club that is standing on its own two feet. Any profit that we make from the better marketing, the better financial control and from the increased number of spectators that I’m confident we will get at the Quins will then go into players. The fortunate thing is that we don’t have a rugby problem. Most pundits would have said we’d be near the bottom of the Super League but we’re in the play off places and above some high profile clubs including, unfortunately, my home town team. With players like Thomas Leuluai, Mark McLinden and Paul Sykes we play an exciting brand of rugby and we win. So, we’re not going to throw money at marketing and we’re not going to throw money at players. We’ll spend what we’re currently spending but we’ll get more out of it by being more effective at it. For instance there’s no shirt sponsor at the moment. You put a name on the shirt and you get money to be spent on marketing. You sell 40 hospitality boxes at five or 10 grand a time (the Harlequins are getting 15 grand a time) and you’re beginning to get into a break even situation or a situation where you can spend money on other things. Marketing first. Players second.
Have you had any feedback from the Harlequins union fans so far?
The nice thing to look at is the vote line on the website. There’s a link to it from the Broncos website. I watch it every night. You get the vociferous ones but, as we speak, there’s 20% against the new partnership and out of the rest the majority are in favour and about 20% don’t know. That was a good position to be in a week after announcing that the club name is disappearing. We’ve got a good website that Chris Warren has put together and now information on the partnership is being read, fans are coming back saying, “this makes good sense.” So the feedback is very strong and very positive. There are some people still saying they won’t watch us but if they really love rugby league in London, they’ll come.
What is your vision of where the Harlequins rugby league team will be in 2010?
To be playing at the top of the game. For people not to be surprised that we are in the play offs but to expect us to be. If you look at the Big Four that are always there and then at the next group of sides then we want to be at the top of the latter group if not amongst the leading sides. The Broncos were in the Cup Final in 1999 and beat Canberra Raiders in 1997 so they’ve had some high spots and I can’t see any reason why we can’t get there on a more consistent basis.
Also, I’ve been involved in rugby league in the north all my life and I’ve never seen anything like the after match scene at the Broncos and in Stripes Bar where you get 500 or 1000 spectators mixing with the players. You don’t get that anywhere else here.
It happens in Australia with the Leagues Clubs doesn’t it?
It does. I was surprised when I went to watch Wigan play Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Challenge in 1994. There were about 150 Wiganers and 60,000 Brisbane people! What staggered me was in the bar afterwards was the Wigan players mixing with the Wigan fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to here next year. The Stoop has this magnificent 120 metre long bar underneath the stand with a band playing afterwards. Now that we’ll be a getting a share of the bar income and the corporate hospitality we’ll be delighted to keep people there. Again, we haven’t had that before and now we’ll be getting our rightful share.
Do you anticipate a significant increase in crowds?
Yes, I would say so. We operate in the most expensive area of the country, we pay the lowest salary in Super League and we’re operating on 3,000 or 3,500 crowds. If we put another thousand on that at The Stoop, or get to 5,000, then we break even before any of the other additional benefits I’ve mentioned. If we sell 40 hospitality boxes at five or 10 grand piece then you can imagine what that does to a loss. So it’s an easy turnaround just by doing the basics right. Increase the crowds, sell the hospitality boxes, get a share of the bars and get a shirt sponsor. That’s the target and the clear sighted view of what we have to do that we now have at the Broncos.
Will the club, or the game as a whole, be promoted in the Sports Cafe chain?
It’s got to be hasn’t it? It would be a nonsense if we didn’t. There’s already been nice publicity for the Sports Café as a result of this partnership. We already show a lot of rugby league in the Sports Café and the Broncos use us to do their press conferences at the Haymarket Sports Café even before I became chairman of the Sports Café. We haven’t gone into the mutual benefits yet and I haven’t gone into the Broncos to benefit the Sports Café. I’ve gone into this because I believe in the Broncos. If the Sports Café can sponsor in some way, hold press conferences or sell hospitality boxes then they’d be delighted to do that.
Some London fans appear disgruntled at another change of ground. Is it not possible that you could find yourself on the move again after this agreement is over?
We have a five-year agreement so we know that whatever happens we are safe and secure for five years and there is provision for considerably longer than that. It is not intended to be a short term solution. It’s not a tenancy agreement, it’s a partnership.
Will there be any overlapping with the union club in respect of staff, funds etc?
No, they’ll be run totally separately. No link whatsoever. We’ll share ideas. They’re good at marketing and have 4,000 season tickets. We’ll share techniques but there will be no corporate link whatsoever.