Exclusive: Outgoing Wigan Warriors chairman says IMG right to protect big clubs – ‘Super League is 90% of rugby league’

John Davidson
Ian Lenagan Wigan Warriors Alamy

Ian Lenagan lifts the Super League trophy after Wigan Warriors' 2023 Grand Final triumph - Alamy

Outgoing Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan believes rugby league is poised to do well in the near future and has backed IMG to improve the sport.

Lenagan is stepping down as chairman and majority owner of the Warriors after 16 years in charge.

He has sold the Super League club to billionaire Mike Danson, who also owns football side Wigan Athletic. 

Lenagan, who is also a former owner of London Broncos, was involved with Super League splitting from the RFL in 2018, after Nigel Wood departed.

Since then the competition has realigned with the RFL, with RL Commercial created to drive growth and global sports marketing company IMG appointed to reimagine the sport.

Lenagan feels the sport must focus on the medium-term, giving proper time for IMG to enact change.

“I think rugby league is poised to do very well,” he said.

“We have to look at the medium term just as I did with Wigan.  

“If you look at the next five years of rugby league, one would have never expected a massively increased Sky TV deal, but in three or four years time I think we’ll do very well indeed because IMG know what they’re doing. 

“I think Frank Slevin knows what he’s doing. There’s a long-running angst because we know what the rules of promotion and relegation are, we know that the rules of who will be in the first front of Super League going forward.  

“What happened with the Super League split was we finally got to know what the financial aspects of rugby league were, and then once having got control, we were able to cede back control to a new entity in RL Commercial.  

“And I think RL Commercial will lead rugby league very well.”

Outgoing Wigan Warriors owner Ian Lenagan backs IMG to improve the sport

IMG were hired by the RFL in May last year as part of a 12-year strategic partnership.

Recently, the company released its prospective grading for all the 35 professional clubs, which will come into effect at the end of 2024 and automatic promotion and relegation into Super League stops.

The grading system has come under criticism from lower league clubs such as Featherstone Rovers, Keighley Cougars, North Wales Crusaders and Whitehaven.

But Lenagan remains a supporter of what IMG can do.

“The important thing is the majority of the big clubs back them,” he says.

“Super League, let’s be honest, Super League is 90% of rugby league in terms of the watching and listening public is concerned.

“So while the Championship, League 1 and more particularly wheelchair and women’s rugby league are vitally important, let’s not forget the fact the vast majority of people in the viewing public want to watch Super League.

“So, the balance that IMG have struck where first of all they’ve said what the strategy is, particularly in terms of London and France, no more than two years ever in London and France maximum, until we expand beyond the 12.

“But London are an important target, is absolutely right. And the M62 corridor solitary view is not the way forward for the game, in my opinion.

“I’m pleased to see RL Commercial and IMG think the same.” 

‘I like rugby union, but they’ve got a far more difficult future than rugby league has got’

Lenagan believes rival code rugby union has a far more difficult future ahead of it than rugby league.

Four professional rugby union clubs have gone bust in the UK in recent times in Wasps, Worcester, London Irish and Jersey Reds, while rugby union is in complete disarray in Australia completing against the booming NRL and has also taken a spike in popularity in New Zealand.

“You only have to look at rugby union where in Australia it’s been a failure compared to the NRL,” he said.

“If you look in the UK with clubs going bust, you look at the difficulties they’ve got.

“I like rugby union, but they’ve got a far more difficult future than rugby league has got.

“We’re at the right level in terms of monies that we spend and development of players, and you’ve only got to look at the credit that is given to rugby league coaches.

“You look at the Rugby World Cup recently and you have to be very impressed by the influence that rugby league has in the Rugby World Cup, in terms of coaching.”

Nearly every major nation at the Rugby World Cup had a rugby league figure involved in its coaching staff, from Shaun Edwards with France, Andy Farrell with Ireland, Mike Forshaw with Wales, and Brett Hodgson and Jason Ryles with Australia.

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