Wigan Athletic: a club renting a stadium to survive?

“There’s an offer of £500,001 in.”

The Sun reports that the offer, presumably £500,000 for Christopher Park and £1 for the club has been made. We can assume it has been made by Frenchman Gauthier Ganaye on behalf of American businessmen Randy Frankel and Michael Kalt.

Although the administrators have stated their preference of selling the club and the stadium together the prospect of them having different owners is becoming more and more likely.

On July 7 news of an initiative to raise funds to buy Latics was made on the Wigan Warriors web site. It mentioned a “unique opportunity here to bring the ownership of these two great clubs together under one roof, each operating independently as before, but under a Wigan Sporting Partnership banner. It is envisaged that each club would retain all its training grounds, management and facilities.

The initiative was to be led by Ian Lenagan, Darryl Eales and Gary Speakman.They stated their belief that Wigan Athletic would be better locally-owned and as far the DW Stadium was concerned they stated that “sustainability and ownership of the stadium is equally important to both clubs, we are currently working with our longstanding advisers KPMG and talking to external parties.”

The communique was met with cynicism by the majority of Wigan Athletic fans who considered it to be an attempt by Lenagan to purchase the DW Stadium. What were Lenagan’s initial motives and what are they now?

Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the football club it was understandable that Lenagan and the Warriors would want to safeguard their tenure at the stadium. Buying into it would be the obvious way to do so. Were Lenagan to succeed he would own 85% of the shares, with the council continuing to own a 15% portion.

However, the running costs of the stadium, including salaries, maintenance and local taxes are significant. In the past Warriors have perhaps had the better of the deal they made with Dave Whelan before the stadium opened in 1999. Warriors were given a long-term lease and it has been reported that they were to pay 10% of their gate receipts for the use of the ground.

Alan Nixon reported that the “French American team” and Lenagan “couldn’t agree on numbers between them”. If the deal were to go through and Lenagan were to take on the considerable costs of stadium ownership he would need incoming funds from the football club to avoid making heavy losses. Put simply, it would not be in Lenagan’s interests not to make a deal with Latics’ new owners.

Now Nixon is talking about an auction for the stadium. Are there other parties ready to bid against Lenagan?

The work of the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club through these tense and difficult months has been admirable. The ‘Save Our Club’ Crowdfunder currently stands at over £634,000 which is a terrific response from all associated with Wigan Athletic. Moreover, they have been involved in discussions with the administrators and parties interested in buying the club.

In their announcement on September 4 they stated that they “…have already met with one of the interested parties who have put in a bid to the administrators. They are very positive about working with us should their bid be successful, and they are keen to ensure that they have local partners working with them to make the Football Club a future success. We are also continuing to work with the council, the Community Trust, Jonathan Jackson, and other partners to ensure that there is a solution to the survival of our Football Club.”

The announcement makes no mention of the stadium but does indicate that the prospective new owners of the club appear to want to work together with them for the future benefit of the club.

However, Nixon’s comment about an auction for the stadium might suggest that there are other interested parties as well as Lenagan.

The prospect of the DW Stadium being owned by another party, especially one associated with the rugby club, is a bitter pill to swallow for Wigan Athletic supporters. However, at this moment in time it appears to be the best option to ensure the survival of the club.

Already there are people suggesting that Latics might eventually build their own new stadium with a smaller capacity. Much would depend on any agreement made between the new owners of the club and the current stadium. Were no agreement to be reached Latics would be forced to seek an alternative venue. Leigh Sports Village has been touted as a possible alternative.

When Dave Whelan built the stadium, he was ambitious for Latics to become a Premier League club able to attract attendances approaching its 25,000 plus capacity. In their first season in the top tier Latics attracted the highest attendances they have ever had, with an average of 20,160 per home game. In the first five years in the Premier League home attendances averaged between 18,000-20,000. Warriors at the time averaged between 14,000 and 16,000. Wigan Athletic could have increased their home attendances during that period had they allowed more away supporters, but they would have run the risk of being outnumbered in their own stadium.

Since then attendances have plummeted for both football and rugby clubs. In the 2018-19 season Latics averaged 11,663, dropping to 10,614 last season. In the 2018 and 2019 seasons the Warriors averaged 11,528 and 12,060.

In early July David Sharpe was interviewed on TalkSport. He gave an honest and realistic appraisal of the club being able to survive:

“If you look at what my granddad achieved, that makes people feel that Wigan is a bigger club than it is.  If you strip away the fact that we were in the Premier League for so long, we got to Europe and we won the FA Cup, it is really not a huge football club.

In reality, Wigan’s population is not huge, under 100,000 people, it’s surrounded by big football clubs, it’s a working-class town, the stadium for our fanbase is probably too big, it should only be around a 10,000.

So I feel, just for the football club to survive with a lower wages bill in League One I would very much be happy with that. As much as I’d love the team to stay in the Championship, with the wages they have in the Championship you have to be a very, very wealthy man to afford the running of that football club.

So, for me, the best person would be somebody who isn’t going to come with grand ambitions to say Premier League and European football, because that’s been and gone. As a Wigan supporter we’ve got to leave those days behind us and just concentrate on the club surviving.”

Over the past months Latics supporters, as a whole, have become more realistic about the club’s place in the football ladder. Most realise that the days of a benevolent owner in Dave Whelan are gone and that future owners are unlikely to put in the kind of funding that kept the club in at a level beyond what could have ever have been dreamed of.

For the moment we have to accept that selling off assets and bringing in new owners is the only way for the club to survive.

More players will depart as the administrators continue to get wages down towards those at a level appropriate to a League 1 club with the prospect of limited revenues in the coming season. Funds raised from transfers will be needed to defray the considerable costs of the administrators and legal fees.

Once the ownership issue is decided new players can be brought in. There are a lot of free agents out there, with so many clubs not renewing their contracts with the prospect of much decreased revenues coming in. Latics must build a team incorporating the fruits of the club’s excellent academy with the experience of senior professionals brought in to provide the backbone.

From a personal point of view, I just want the club to survive, albeit in much-changed circumstances. On the playing front the goal would be to avoid relegation to League 2. Anything more than that would be a bonus.

 

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