Frustrations in co-existing with a rugby club

A couple of weeks ago Wigan Warriors met the Catalan Dragons in a televised match at the DW Stadium.  The events that followed have once again brought to the surface the latent frictions between followers of the two codes, the ground-sharing issue once again being hotly debated.

The pundits said that the rugby match would have been postponed had it not been on television. The DW pitch was already in poor condition after the constant rains that had fallen over recent months. Allowing a rugby game to be played in atrocious conditions caused so much further damage that a couple of days later David Sharpe was to take drastic action by installing a brand new surface within the week that followed.

The social media message boards were buzzing. Some Latics fans advocated evicting the rugby club; others questioned why towns like Huddersfield and Hull don’t have the same types of problems with their pitches. However, it is understood that the control of the DW Stadium rests in the hands of the Whelan family, not Wigan Athletic itself. Moreover we are told that the rugby club was given a 50 year lease on using it.

Theories abound as to why the pitch has been so problematic since the opening of the stadium in 1999. The common view is that it was built on marshy, reclaimed land close to a river and a canal, so how could we expect any better? Another claim is that there is a large cesspit beneath it, from which gases rise over the winter months, poisoning the grass above.

The bottom line is that Sharpe has invested a significant amount of money in providing a new pitch for the short term, with more work to be done over the summer. The new pitch looked remarkably good for the Oldham match last Saturday, although the players will have found some difficulty adjusting to the longer grass, which could not be cut to normal length at the time because of its newness.

Sharpe’s investment will surely help Gary Caldwell’s players in their quest for promotion. Having to play on a quagmire would have seriously damaged Latics’ promotion chances, given their preferred style of possession football. But more rugby games are coming up as the football season continues.

The recent announcement that the Warriors home game with Salford has been moved forward a day to Thursday, February 25th has brought indignation from their fans. Latics have a home game with Bury on Saturday, the 27th. Warriors’ chairman, Ian Lenegan, eloquently discusses the fixture schedule complications that caused the rearrangement of the match on YouTube.

The upcoming matches at the DW are now:

Sat, Feb 20 – Warriors v Brisbane

Thurs, Feb 25 – Warriors v Salford

Sat, Feb 27 – Latics v Bury

Sat, March 5 – Latics v Peterborough

In 2011 we published an article called “1932 and all that – is Wigan a rugby town?”

The intention was to examine the more recent history of both Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors, looking at attendance trends in particular.

From 1932 to 1978 a look at attendances would appear to an outsider that rugby was the dominant force in the town, although a significant number of Wiganers would typically travel to Liverpool and Manchester to watch top flight football. After achieving Football League status in 1978, Latics’ average attendance went up five fold in that first season, the average of 6,701 eclipsing the 4,505 average of their rugby counterparts for the first time.

However, it was Latics’ entry into the Premier League in 2005 that was to give them dominance in terms of attendance. Even after relegation to the Championship their attendances held up in the first year, only to fall below the rugby last season

Football season Rugby season Wigan Athletic Wigan Warriors
2005-06 2006 20,160 14,464
2006-07 2007 18,159 16,040
2007-08 2008 19,045 13,995
2008-09 2009 18,350 14,080
2009-10 2010 17,848 15,181
2010-11 2011 16,976 16,125
2011-12 2012 18,634 16,043
2012-13 2013 19,375 13,556
2013- 14 2014 15,176 14,102
2014-15 2015 12,882 13,980

Can a small town like Wigan support two aspiring clubs?

In terms of attendance the highest ever aggregate of the two clubs’ attendances was 34,677 in the 2011-12 football season/2012 rugby season. The contrast with 1977-78 season is stunning, with the rugby club averaging 5,544 and Latics 1,334 in their last season in the Northern Premier League.

Latics current average attendance of in League 1 of 8,679 will surely be eclipsed by the Warriors this year. However, should promotion back to the Championship occur, history suggests that they would compete on an even keel with the rugby team next season.

In terms of attendances it appears that both clubs can co-exist. It is the prickly question of ground-sharing that is the more urgent issue. Questions remain whether the pitch can withstand constant use over the course of a year and as to whether the Super League can play its part in ensuring that the rugby club’s fixtures complement those of their football counterparts.

Ground-sharing in a small town makes economic sense. Let’s hope the frictions can be reduced by dealing with the key issues.

Attendances Looking Good

Wigan-Shrewsbury-27_11_93

Just twenty years ago Wigan Athletic were in dire straits.

1993 had been a bad year for Latics, losing their place in Division 2 – the third tier of English football – after an eleven season stay. Long serving manager Bryan Hamilton had left in March, to be replaced by Dave Philpotts, but to no avail.

Now Latics were in free-fall, struggling in the drop zone of Division 3. New manager Kenny Swain was to have the unenviable task in keeping Latics in the Football League with a rock-bottom budget. The prospect was looming of a return to the realm of non-league football, which had been their home for 46 years prior to election into the Football League in 1978.

Fans breathed a sigh of relief when they eventually  finished in  19th place.  The  average attendance in that 1993-94 season was 1,897.

Twenty years on and Latics have been relegated again – this time from the first tier to the second.

But 2013 has not been such a bad year for Wigan Athletic. They won the FA Cup, they have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Europa League and they have a squad good enough to make a fair crack at getting back into the Premier League.

After 7 home matches the average attendance for Championship matches stands at 14,986.

Wigan Athletic’s fan base has grown way beyond expectations.

Where do these fans come from?

A fascinating study by real estate company Rightmove in August 2012 revealed that Latics had the highest level of local support of any club in the Premier League. Rightmove found that 65% of Wigan Athletic’s fans live in the same post code as the DW Stadium. Norwich came a close second with 61%, Southampton next on 51%.

The study showed each of  the big four northwest clubs – the two from Manchester and the two from Liverpool –  having  a score of less than 20%. Manchester United finished bottom on 9%.

The big four from Manchester and Merseyside clearly attract a lot of support from outside their city.

For so many years the media ridiculed Wigan Athletic’s level of support. The defence was that Wigan was a small town of 81,000 people that supported both football and rugby.  The big clubs from Manchester and Liverpool drew prospective fans away, let alone the neighbours up the road in Horwich.

However, the truth is that Wigan can support the two sports.  In fact the rugby club had its largest ever average attendances during the time Latics were in the Premier League.

Getting reliable attendance data for the Warriors is not an easy matter. Wigan Athletic  publish their historical attendance data on the club website and it makes fascinating reading. The Warriors do no such thing, neither does the Super League.

2013 has been a good year for the Warriors, winning both the championship and the Challenge Cup. Sky Sports quotes their average league attendance at 13,556. Their  clash with St Helens – as almost always – drew their best of the season at 23,861.  Their lowest was 6,327 against Widnes.

Latics averaged 19,375 in the 2012-13 season.

A couple of years ago I published an article “1932 and all that  – Is Wigan a Rugby Town“. I used data from Wikipedia to compare the attendances of Latics and Warriors. The updated figures are shown in the table below.

The figures for Latics have come directly from the club’s official site. Those for the Warriors from 2006-2010 come from Wikipedia. Those for 2011 and 2012 come from the Wiganwarriorsfans.com fan site.

AVERAGE ATTENDANCES

Football season

Rugby season

Wigan Athletic

Wigan Warriors

2005-2006

2006

20,160

14,464

2006-2007

2007

18,159

16,040

2007-2008

2008

19,045

13,995

2008-2009

2009

18,350

14,080

2009-2010

2010

17,848

15,181

2010-2011

2011

16,976

16,125

2011-2012

2012

18,634

16,043

2012-2013

2013

19,375

13,556

Average

18,568

14,936

Wigan Athletic’s average attendance went up by almost ten times from 1,897  in 1993-94 to 18,568 over the eight years in the Premier League. A remarkable transformation in a space of 20 years.

Moreover the current average of around 15,000 is a good sign for a club that has been relegated, with a team that has not yet hit its best form.

Gone are the days when the media can ridicule Latics’ attendances.

Like us on Facebook, or follow us on twitter here.