Wright sees the promised land of profit on horizon
Sunday 07 September 2003
Like a lot of businessmen who get involved in sport, Chris Wright does not know a spin pass from his elbow. To the owner and chairman of Wasps, a turnover is not a loss of possession; rather, in the case of Wright's Chrysalis media group, it is a tidy sum of £235.4m - about three times that of the Rugby Football Union. When Wright says he has his eye on the ball at Wasps, he means the balance sheet. Breaking even, not breaking the gainline, is his target, and he intends to achieve it with the Premiership champions within two years.
In 1995 rugby went open and soon afterwards Wright, who made his fortune signing up wild-eyed rockers, set about storming Fortress Twickenham. He and his fellow entrepreneurs - Sir John Hall, Frank Warren et al - found the game's movers and shakers more Jurassic Park than Jethro Tull, and the temptation was to rip things up and start again. But the old duffers were not so easily moved aside, and today the premier clubs and the RFU are bound together in a financial partnership.
Love and peace is the message; so much so that, as Wright looked ahead to next week's start of the Zurich Premiership season, he said: "I get frustrated to read in the rugby pages about political problems in the sport. When you consider the number of people turning up to games, and the quality of rugby being played, we're in a wonderful situation compared to where we were six years ago."
Clearly the man whose record label once had Debbie Harry belting out "All I want is 20-20 vision" has learned the benefits of hindsight. Wright understands now that ruck and maul may never be the new rock 'n' roll, but, together with Nigel Wray at Saracens and Bath's Andrew Brownsword, he is one of the few original investors to have stuck to the task of making club rugby work.
"There's not much sport that stacks up as a business," Wright said. "If you're Manchester United, maybe it does. If you can get to the point where you break even, you're doing really well."
Wright's team, who like to be known as London Wasps although they play in Wycombe, won the Premiership by beating Gloucester in the inaugural play-off final. They kick off their defence of the title next Saturday at their old friends and rivals, Harlequins, but the talk will be of absent friends: the 30 England players and other assorted internationals who will be absent until December because of the World Cup. Lawrence Dallaglio is likely to miss 14 out of 22 matches in the "regular" season.
"Obviously we've got mixed feelings about losing the players," said Wright. "But the World Cup, assuming England do well, is going to help the clubs." In support of the claim, season-ticket sales across the Premiership are up 12 per cent on this time last year, although the total figure of 48,261 as of last Tuesday is obviously a drop in the footballing ocean.
Wasps' kit is generously spattered with sponsors' logos but central funding from Zurich, Sky and the BBC makes up most of the income. Outgoings include rent at Adams Park, recently renamed the Causeway Stadium, and a wage bill capped at £1.91m. Overall, the shortfall is thought to be around £200,000 per annum, but Wright said: "It's a diminishing shortfall, year on year, and we're getting pretty close to where we can make it work. I don't think there's an awful lot of improvements that can be made. I think players' salaries are about right, where they are. If rugby was being played in front of 25,000 people every weekend, and it was getting huge numbers watching club games on TV, things would be different."
Only three Premiership sides - Leicester, Northampton and Gloucester - are turning a profit, and each combines owning their ground with a strong supporter base from the amateur days. Wasps have had a year at Wycombe, and will give it another 12 months before deciding whether to stay. They would love to outgrow the 10,000 capacity. "We had one sell-out last season," said chief executive Alistair McLean. "We need to get to that to four or five this season, and push on towards selling out every match. If we did that we'd be just about at break-even."
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