'With Koukash giving the ownership away, the club will now live or die by the support from the people and businesses of Salford and the surrounding areas....'
It's a pity that the Salford Red Devils is not a reality tv show or soap opera. Over the last ten years or so the club's ups, downs, headlines and controversies would have made Kim Kardashian envious...
At the end of the 2017 season, owner Marwan Koukash stepped away from control and a new ownership group was created just in time for the 2018 season. A four-person board with Andrew Rosler, an insolvency specialist, becoming the club's Executive Director and spokesperson.
Rosler spoke in depth to the Salford Star about taking over and his early goals for the club. But first, some context to the take-over and some of the scepticism which surrounds the new owners...
Exit Dr Koukash?
Under the tenure of Marwan Koukash the club saw its profile increase, mainly due to the former owner's love of a headline. Koukash is a marmite type figure; he rode into the AJ Bell stadium at the behest of the Rugby Football League (RFL) with the club going out of business, and took over in a blaze of glory making big promises about bringing to the club a number of star administrators, coaches and players.
To be fair, in his first press conference, Koukash stated that he wanted the club to become self-sufficient and that his spending would not last forever. He did spend up to the limit of the salary cap - according to the RFL, beyond it. But the people of Salford didn't follow as attendances did not significantly rise, nor, in truth, did the Reds long-term on field form even with big-name players.
Run-ins with the RFL, a relegation fight, court cases (including with players), flirtations with buying football and other rugby clubs, the Manchester ideas, and perhaps a lack of understanding about the sport's history and team sports in general saw Marwan Koukash become a more despondent figure.
It was therefore no surprise when, after a 'shall I leave, shall I stay' episode played out in public over 18 months that he decided to go. What was surprising was that, presumably knowing he was going to leave, Koukash instigated a change in branding and the club's badge.
Koukash's legacy is open to debate. The problems the club faced before he took over, a lack of revenue and poor support are still evident. As is the club's debt, with it owing approximately £3million before he took over and now owing £8milion, with £5million of this being to Koukash. From an outside point of view the terms of repayment would indicate that he is highly unlikely to ever see his money again.
A New Board
Koukash announced publicly that he was stepping away from the club and that he would put it into the hands of trustees. How these people would be selected or entrusted to run the club was never clear. Names were banded about, and towards the end of the pre-season period in early 2018 the new ownership was ratified by the RFL and Marwan Koukash's tenure was over.
Step forward to a spring day in April, and an interview with Andrew Rosler, one of the four 'trustees' now in charge of the club. The first questions led to an immediate correction from Andrew, which may surprise...
"It's not a trust" he said, explaining that the four new owners have taken over from Koukash and that he has no legal ownership of the club anymore... "He has no control whatsoever as to who is appointed on the board, and the board have got one hundred per cent authority to appoint and replace directors."
So why the confusion over the club being a trust? Rosler felt this was perhaps because; "what he meant was he was going to give control to the fans, and to that extent that is what he has done."
With Koukash giving the ownership away, the club will now live or die by the support from the people and businesses of Salford and the surrounding areas.
Rosler was asked how he and the other directors had got involved (Asif Latief, Hannah Fendall and Dawn Fidler). He declined to speak about the others but stated that his own backstory of involvement started as a fan, then a sponsor and then becoming more involved through his business expertise as an insolvency specialist, putting together a CVA for the club.
From this association, Rosler was asked to become involved with the ownership, which, as stated previously, has seen him become the club's Executive Director; the only one of the new directors to have day to day involvement, as well as seemingly becoming the spokesperson for the new board.
The Presence of Marwan Koukash
With new owners in place, Koukash is still a regular figure at games and recently helped the club with a cash donation during the Catalans game. Surprisingly during this game, he was seen stood in the technical area at pitchside, somewhere he should technically not have been, but it never stopped him when he was the owner! Not asking about the Koukash involvement in the club would have been remiss as in some ways he is just as visible on matchdays as a member of the public as he was as the owner.
"He has said all along, and continues to say, and I have no reason to disbelieve him at all, that he wants the club to succeed" Rosler said "So far, he has offered contacts, and I dare say that if the club was in a position where we need financial assistance, he would hope to be consulted. I would say he is probably similar to a more involved sponsor you could ring at any time for advice or financial assistance."
Taking the Red Devils Forward
Are the Red Devils financially viable? The sale of Ben Murdoch-Masila at the end of Koukash's reign was seen as some as a good piece of business and by others as a worrying sign of a desperate need for cash to ensure short term survival.
The recent sale of Gareth O'Brien raised the same questions: was this because of cash flow problems? Or, as stated by the club, O'Brien had received a personal offer and opportunity he could not turn down. Whatever the case, Rosler went on record at that time to assure fans and other stakeholders that club was in no immediate danger.
"I think the reality is that we are probably the most poorly supported club, with fans at the door and maybe the same commercially" he explained "I think you kind of get the team you deserve. So, if we have a low income then in the absences of any borrowing, which is impossible, and in the absence of not paying creditors, which is unthinkable, and in the absence of a benefactor, which is now a reality, we have to cut our cloth accordingly."
Rosler pointed out later in the interview that "nearly every Super League club loses money. And every single Super League club has more income than Salford and bigger crowds."
The problem of income, specifically at the start of this season was not helped by the RFL's own concerns based on the number of financial problems in recent years at other clubs. The League had to have assurances from the new owners, and this meant that the change of ownership happened on the eve of the 2018 season rather than before.
With a large chunk of income coming from season ticket sales, the ownership limbo meant that supporters were waiting to see what happened before investing, and although sales were similar to 2017, Rosler rightly felt an opportunity to engage because of the new ownership had been lost. He hoped that some of the ideas to build engagement could be implemented this season and, if not, certainly next season.
When the club moved to the AJ Bell Stadium, a figure of 8,000 spectators was banded around as being the breakeven figure, and in some ways it illustrated one of the problems with the club pre-Koukash and which exist today. This is the inability of the club to engage with businesses...
"I do think the club has under performed off the pitch for some time" Rosler stated "…The vast majority of our income comes from season tickets and gate receipts. There are 8,500 businesses in Salford, it's one of the highest growing economies in terms of start-ups. We engage with a tiny fraction, we've scratched the surface. We are also on the border with Trafford they've got a keen interest in seeing the club grow; there's also a huge shopping centre over the road, we don't do anything with them. We do little with universities..."
He's open about the problem of engaging people and business... "We've anticipated an average number of box sales, hospitality etc; we are down on gate receipts, they are poor" he underlined "One of the issues we have, given there is modest working capital, it means we can't invest in the commercial business side of the club.
"In order to generate commercial revenue, you need something professional to go out to business partners, then somebody needs to sell it and account manage" he added "The club has never really been able to afford that. You want someone to respond to emails every second, make sure there are no mistakes in social media and take advantage of every potential opportunity that exists on-line. It's difficult to do that with modest amounts of staff and of course you can't then put much effort and resources into promoting a game because there are no staff."
Identifying problems is one thing, actioning solutions to eradicate are another. Rosler stated that initiatives to boost gate figures would make the club more marketable to commercial partners who themselves would be able to access greater returns on investment.
One example he gave would be to reduce prices at the gate; short term lower income would be balanced out by greater opportunities for business because of a larger audience. Rosler felt that his own background and contacts would be able to help build the club's commercial income.
In terms of the club's debts, most of the money owed is to Koukash and Salford City Council (approximately £6.5million combined), Rosler commented that nothing had changed in terms of the debts, repayments, contracts etc.
Many people point the finger of the club's recent problems to the move to the AJ Bell Stadium. In terms of revenue, Rolser stated, as many people were aware, that the club receives no money from sales of drink and food, both inside the stadium and from the fan's bar outside.
No income is gained from car parking and most of the in-ground advertisements are not the club's. The club receives money on matchdays from ticket sales (minus booking fees), programme sales (minus production costs) and hospitality (minus food costs)..."If people buy a programme the club makes money, if they buy a burger we don't make anything" he revealed.
On long term viability of the club, Rosler was confident: "We have to do things slightly better and then we are viable."
Tackling Rugby League Apathy in Salford
Whilst Rosler had plans to increase the club's business relationships, he is less sure about the appetite for the sport in the city.
"We are looking at making the club more relevant in the city. I'm not sure how it is. I'm not sure how interested people are in Rugby League generally. Some of the things we want to do and are doing will be quite pioneering in the sport. It's fairly difficult to expect people to watch Rugby League in a city that doesn't play it very often. We need to be in our schools, we need to have more visibility of the sport and club in the area."
It is a laudable aim to get more participation of the sport; in theory the more people who play, the more will want to watch a professional team. But how is this going to be achieved, considering the Red Devils Foundation has been the most successful arm of the club for a number of years? And the sport is only available to watch live on satellite tv, not to mention our fascination with social media.
"I think the fact that kids don't watch the game on tv is a red herring" he responded "If you're given something to do on a piece of grass they will do it. Most of the kids in the playground will make their own games up, that's the first thing. We've got enough grass, enough rugby posts, probably enough coaches. We have the desire across the city to play Rugby League, we just need to be organised.
"It's very easy to criticise the club for not engaging with schools" he added "The Foundation do have significant contacts with all schools, there are far more kids playing Rugby League than you think, far more schools playing; probably sixty per cent playing Rugby League. Now, what we don't have any more is district development from the RFL because they pulled the funding, so each foundation has to do their own. We also don't have a school's league.
"The way we get more kids playing Rugby League is to get it on the curriculum in some shape or form" he insisted "I do not think the World Cup 2021[for which Salford is bidding to host games] will force the local authority to think of legacy. Legacy from my perspective doesn't mean building a Rugby League stadium it means getting kids playing Rugby League."
As well as looking at schools to build the profile of the game, Rosler spoke of building "a structured development pathway, from six year olds to the first team." Where he differed from previous regimes at Salford was his desire to build effective two-way relationships with amateur teams (he himself played for Eccles) in the club's catchment area, as well working with other clubs such as Swinton, Oldham and Rochdale.
Long term supporters will be aware how, in the past, relationships were virtually non-existent with some of these clubs. Supporters have often lamented how players such as Dennis Betts (Wigan) and Adrian Morley (Leeds) made their names with other clubs, despite being Salfordians. In recent times Kevin Sinfield (Leeds), Kyle Eastmond and Joe Greenwood (both St Helens) all came through the junior ranks in Oldham, which is part of the Red Devils catchment area, but none of them were signed by the club. Rosler at least has a desire for this to change.
The Salford She-Devils
With the Women's Super League being recently launched, Salford are up for starting a female team... "I am very keen on that; it's on the list, certainly on the agenda" said Rosler "I would certainly like to see within the next few weeks or a month that there will be something quite physical from the club in the respect of girls/women's Rugby League because it is unthinkable for us not do that."
Photos and words by Gareth Lyons