This time last year, Wakefield were in the doldrums. But after a year of hard work, chief executive James Elston believes the future is bright.
The Wildcats started last season with a four point deduction having entered administration on the eve of the campaign, following a winding-up petition brought by HMRC over a tax debt of more than £300,000.
Although the club was rescued by local businessman Andrew Glover, Wakefield’s Super League future looked bleak until the sensational news that Crusaders were to withdraw from the competition, preserving the Wildcats’ stay in the top flight.
Since then, and in fact since the initial takeover, Glover and Elston have been working hard to implement a sustainable business model and making fans feel part of the club.
Elston said: “We always planned to look at the club as a business, and not as just a rugby league club. Andrew came in from outside the game, so he has a fairly black and white view on the figures.
“Whether we had retained our licence or not, we made budgets, wanted to make the club sustainable and set ourselves realistic targets.
“We’ve got to be sensible, be smarter and work harder. We’re in a good place with our finances since buying the club out of administration, and the prospects are good.
“Chasing the dream and overspending isn’t the answer. Creating the income to be able to spend money will take longer, but the club will be in a sound state and will be able to grow gradually.”
Getting more customers through the turnstiles is the key to any sustainable sports club, and the Wildcats have done just that this season. In five Super League home games so far, they have averaged 8276, up more than 2100 on the average of the same five games in 2011.
Elston said: “There’s not one reason for the increase in numbers. It’s a mix of things but we still need to do more.
“What we’ve worked on is making it very easy to be a fan. We want to make the club accessible. We want to get information out via the club website, Facebook, Twitter, local press, the radio; myself and Andrew have our own personal Twitter accounts, and there’s a real thought process behind that.
“We want to encourage interaction and transparency. There were criticisms of the club in the past that the fans ‘don’t know what’s going’ but now they are able to ask questions and get the information they want out of the club.”
The backing of the fans will hold the club in good stead for years to come. The Wildcats have put out a much changed team in 2012, and have managed only two wins under new coach Richard Agar so far, but Elston believes that the club’s openness with the fans means that they can see how their support can help improve the club.
“We put together a team in probably 2-3 weeks, we were behind Widnes, we didn’t have a coach.
“But we know where we are. We are realistic, we want to improve year on year. Of course we would like to give the fans star signings, but we’ve got to look after the club and build the foundations.
“We’ve got to be open, there are so many questions. When we were losing players like David Solomona, Danny Brough, Gareth Ellis people were asking ‘where has that money been spent’ but the fact is we just couldn’t pay their wages.
“Fans do demand results and for some fans it’s all about the winning and losing, and rightly so.
“It’s about how we handle that pressure, how we can work smarter with our budgets and letting people know exactly where we are. The recent signing of Paul Sykes shows we are not resting on our laurels.”
Sykes joined the Wildcats from troubled Bradford last month, joining on a loan deal until the end of the season.
The current problems at Odsal will no doubt have brought back memories of the situation Wakefield found themselves in just over 12 months ago. The Bulls managed to raise £500,000 ahead of their Easter deadline for funds, but must still find another £500,000 to preserve the club’s long term future.
Just last week, a Bulls fan group has wrote to their club and asked for them to be open with the fans – and it is such openness that Elston and the Wakefield team have prided themselves on, and is perhaps one of the reasons why more people are getting behind them and a sustainable future.
Elston added: “I don’t know the ins and outs of what’s going on at Bradford so I can’t compare the two situations.
“The openness works for us. People may not agree, they may not like what is happening, but it’s true, this it’s what happening, this is where we are.
“It must be difficult at Bradford right now. My heart goes out to them, and like everyone else in the rugby league community, we hope they get through it.”
Wakefield have taken several steps to engage fans since their takeover last year. Club 1873, a membership scheme, was established shortly after Glover’s takeover to not only raise funds for the club, but to bring the fans together as a community.
They have prominent social media outlets, a well-populated website, and communicate regularly with fans, the media, businesses and the local community.
Additional revenue streams continue to be explored, and the recent launch of a new online shop has proved popular with fans, with a range of novelty products, often as a result of fans feedback.
A Director of Education was appointed last year to offer support to the club’s youth structure, a non-performance figure to help those players who aren’t lucky enough to make it at the highest level, enabling them to receive tuition and training for skills outside the game.
Elston believes that this gives young players and their parents confidence in the Wildcats system, enabling them to attract high quality youngsters, and ultimately push them on to the first team, as they have done with the likes of Lucas Walshaw and Kyle Trout recently.
The investment in their youth structure has been mirrored by investment in facilities at Belle Vue. Often the subject of much criticism from rival fans, the club has recently finished installing a new roof on the north stand, but have also made improvements to the stadium entrance, adding a reception, refurbished toilets, added new bars and new hospitality suites to respond to demand.
A move to a new stadium is still very much on the agenda for the club, and they are hoping for news on the planning situation at Newmarket in the next few months.
Elston added: “We are keen to improve the spectator experience.
“We have worked hard to make the environment better at Belle Vue, not just for home fans, but for away fans too.
“They are used to better facilities elsewhere, and we want to look after them better. We’re trying to improve things that we have control over – while we can’t add any more seats or add any more car parking spaces near the ground, we can and have added a roof on the north stand so if it does rain, fans are covered.
“The increase in numbers has shown that people appreciate the improvements, and since we retained our Super League licence, we’ve done everything we’ve promised.”