1932 and all that — is Wigan a rugby town?

A twelve year old boy went to watch his first football match on August 27th, 1932. It was the beginning of what was to become a life-long addiction to his hometown team and in his later years he would still talk about that match with great affection, although the result was not favourable. It was the opening league game for Wigan’s new football club: they lost 2-0 to Port Vale Reserves in front of 6,000 people. It was during the time of the great depression. Wigan Borough had folded the previous year, following the familiar pattern set by other clubs who had been set up to represent our  ‘Ancient and Loyal’ town in the football world.

That boy was my Dad. Although he was a Latic fanatic he was also proud of our rugby club, although the rugby matches he actually attended were few. However, I do remember him going to Central Park to watch Wigan rugby league club’s highest attended  game when they met St. Helens in March,1959. The recorded crowd was 47,747. Latics were drawing crowds of one to two thousand those days.

As a kid I was brought up around the corner from where George Orwell lodged in Sovereign Road when he started writing “The Road to Wigan Pier”. He chronicled the misery of life in Wigan at the time. It was superb documentary, way ahead of its time.  It is totally chilling and gives you a real feel of how hard life was at the time. The year was 1936, a handful of years after the great depression. It was the forty second season of the Northern Rugby League (NRL). Wigan RLFC finished fifth that season, three points behind the fourth placed team Liverpool Stanley and nine behind champions Salford.  There were 29 clubs in the NRL that year (there were 35 clubs in the three divisions in 2010-2011). That same season  Sunderland won the First Division for the sixth time and Arsenal won the FA Cup for the second time. The Football League was composed of 88 clubs in four divisions.

The early thirties was a tough time for any football club to be born. Wigan Athletic were fighting against the odds  then, as they continue to do now. Wigan remained economically depressed for decades. Could a town of its size and economy support two professional sports teams? Could both clubs co-exist and survive economically?

According to Wikipedia:  “Wigan are the most successful club in the history of British rugby league, having won 19 League Championships, 17 Challenge Cups and 3 World Club Challenge trophies. Wigan enjoyed a period of sustained success from the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s which included winning the Challange Cup eight seasons in succession and the League Championship seven seasons in succession.”

Wigan Athletic’s record is quite different. They were a non-league team for their first 46 years. During that time they won the Northern Premier League twice,  the Cheshire League four times and the Lancashire Combination four times. Since entering the Football League in 1978 they have gained promotion four times, winning their division twice in the process. They reached the League Cup final in 2005-2006.

Wigan Athletic continue to defy the odds. Despite being in a so-called rugby town the fact is that they consistently pull in superior attendances than their historically more successful counterparts do. This despite having struggling teams, fighting to avoid relegation. Since they got into the Premier League their average attendances have been around  the 18,000-20,000 range. According Wikipedia they have been:

2005-06                20,160

2006-07                18,169

2007-08                19,046

2008-09                18,413

2009-10                18,006

Those of Wigan Warriors rugby  team in the Super League have been around the 14,000-16,000 range during the same period (Wiki figures again) :

2006                       14,404

2007                       16,040

2008                       13,955

2009                       14,080

2010                       15,181

From 2000-2005 their attendances were lower, the highest average attendance being 13,894 in 2005.

Is Wigan really a rugby town?  Can it support two teams? Let’s take a look at the statistics.

Since entering the Premier League Wigan Athletic’s attendances have been significantly higher than those of the Warriors every year. However, it is to be noted that the Warriors’ attendances too have shown a positive trend since Latics got into the higher echelons.

Providing both clubs can balance their books with those attendance levels and maintain their status in their current divisions then the answer must be that the town can support the two. Things have changed a lot since the 1930s. Football clubs used to base their budgets on gate revenues, but now the reality for Latics is that the gate receipts are a relatively small part of their overall income. The Premier League is marketed worldwide and gets revenues which are way beyond those of any other football division in the world. Latics may be a small club by Premier League standards, but economically they can compete on more than just an even footing against their rugby counterparts.

Wiganers have  a choice: to support a club that is  a big fish in a small pond or to support a smaller fish in a giant pond.  Or they can support both. Wigan Athletic are an example to the football world. The rugby team’s  performances and attendances do not need to concern them. There is room for two teams, but the tables have turned. This is not the 1930s. The football team is now the more dominant economic force in the town, in terms of revenue and scale of operation. The myth of Wigan being a rugby town needs to be put to bed.

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