As Quins rebrand and London Broncos are reborn, Michael O’Hare meets the capital club’s chief executive Gus Mackay.
This interview was first carried out in 2010, well before Gus Mackay joined the Broncos as chief executive officer in January 2011 Which is a bit odd I guess, until you learn that back then I had met his predecessor Paul Blanchard and asked him the same set of questions only to hear the week after that Paul had been offered a more exciting job elsewhere (I know, surely some mistake) and my carefully honed words were set to go to waste.
Actually, being a lazy old hack, it’s very rare that something does go to waste. How about I interview Paul’s successor I asked the RLW editor? That way I don’t have to think up any new questions, just turn up and do what I did last year. Astoundingly – and clearly recognising a fellow swinger of the lead ¬– he acquiesced, and then interrupted my stifled giggles by adding: and you could compare their different answers couldn’t you? Which suddenly doubled the workload and required a modicum of journalistic input. That really hadn’t been my idea at all…
Nonetheless it was so far, so familiar. I took the same train to Twickenham, walked the same roads to the Stoop Memorial Ground and sat in the same office – the same chair even – as I switched on my recorder. But, of course, while both men were keen to emphasise the positives of Rugby League in London, Gus Mackay was not Paul Blanchard. CEOs are like fingerprints – they share a similar purpose but no two are entirely the same.
For a start, not surprisingly, they look different. Mackay looks for all the world like a rugby forward. Except he isn’t. His sport was cricket (he was too modest to tell me he’d played internationals for Zimbabwe) while his more recent background is in cricket administration, ending up at Surrey. “But I found myself wanting a change,” he says. “The Rugby League opportunity came up and I’m really enjoying it. I know so much has been said before about what London’s Super League club can achieve so we’ll be judged on what we do. But we are lucky having such a great sport and one people really care about.”
And there’s another difference. Mackay is more measured with his words. Paul Blanchard wore his heart on his sleeve a little more. Both approaches have their appeal, of course, and Blanchard was passionate about his club and the game, but the new incumbent seems intent on thinking his way around the issues.
Maybe that’s because he’s a Rugby League outsider. He’s being careful finding his way. “Certainly being a non-Rugby League person has its strengths,” he says. “I’ve seen it in cricket when we’ve employed executives from other sports. You come in with an open mind. It’s refreshing – my team here has people from other sports.”
An open mind may be a benefit, but you only have to read the letters pages of the Rugby League press to find its direct opposite: insularity. Many people think London’s Super League club shouldn’t exist at all. “It’s frustrating,” he admits. “The game is still viewed as ‘northern’, which we try to counter. The detractors have their passions too and love their game and their clubs. However, we must understand that for the greater good of the sport, it has to grow and rightly London is seen as one of the RFL’s key strategic markets. The nation’s commercial, media and political hub is in London. If we are successful most people will eventually realise the value of a team here.” Blanchard made the same comments and it is clear that getting this message across is key for whoever sits in the CEO’s chair.
And it’s not as though success isn’t achievable. It’s often been pointed out that concerns about attendance figures at London’s Super League club obscure a deeper success story. Amateurs and schools constitute a large playing base in the south-east that 20 years ago simply did not exist. It’s a point Paul Blanchard raised and Gus Mackay has statistics to back it up. “There are 2,500 registered club players in London and the south-east playing in 110 teams. There are more than 300 secondary school teams, including 70 girls’ teams. And an additional 1,700 people played touch, tag, masters or wheelchair Rugby League in 2010.” Perhaps of greater significance he points out that 29 London-raised players were in the first team squads of Harlequins RL and Championship 1 club London Skolars in 2011.
He has a point. When commentators insist the current London professional team is not as successful as, say, Fulham once was, they fail to understand that success can be measured in different ways. Fulham, remember, had an entirely northern-based squad. Nobody from London played in the team (in fact hardly anybody in London played the game at any level). That’s very different now and the whole squad is, of course, London resident.
Of course the problem is not just convincing sceptics in the north. It’s as vital to challenge stereotyped attitudes to league in London. Mackay agrees. “We’re having a big media push. We are partnering with the Evening Standard again this season. Last year the Standard promoted our free ticket offer for the Castleford match – 35 per cent of the people who received them turned up – a great return. And we are working hard on social media,” he adds. “Smartphones and instant access have taken over – we need to provide ticket offers that can be taken up immediately. It will be interesting to see how traditional sales like season tickets compare to individual matches where we can offer new fans one-off deals via social media.”
Sensible stuff, but will this help to defeat the pervading sense that, in London and perhaps media-led opinion elsewhere, Rugby League lacks sex appeal? “To change attitudes especially in London the game needs icons and heroes,” agrees Mackay. “Other sports have Jonny Wilkinson, Freddie Flintoff, Wayne Rooney. They transcend their sport. We need similar stars, a new Martin Offiah; possibly the last widely known league player in London.” But like Paul Blanchard before him, Mackay is adamant that “we have a great game, it’s action-packed, great for the family. If you come from a neutral background – our target audience – and see it for the first time you get a high rate of converts. When you consider the huge population of London we only need 10,000 people who think the same. And 17,000 at the Four Nations at Wembley in October were from London and the south-east. I’m not saying we’ll have 10,000 people every game next season but I think we’ll take steps towards that.
Will reverting to the London Broncos title help? Would it be fair to say the Harlequins name could never work in Rugby League circles? It’s a question that for obvious reasons Paul Blanchard avoided, but that was when the club was still saddled with the Harlequins moniker. Mackay can now explain some of the background behind the reversion to the Broncos. “At first I was privileged to be appointed CEO of Harlequins RL,” he admits. “But I soon found myself explaining to people that we were not the union club. And even then they’d say ‘but you beat Wasps last week’. That convinced me the name wasn’t working.
“We consulted fans and players – 90 per cent wanted London in the new name and 60 per cent wanted Broncos. We also engaged a creative company with the brief that we didn’t want London Broncos as a title, purposefully to get people to think differently. But ultimately we opted for Broncos, despite all that had gone before, and to be honest it’s what our chairman David Hughes wanted.”
How did Mackay feel about that? “I was 50:50 because I could see the benefits of a fresh start. But the negative side is the marketing you have to do to get that new name out there. With ‘Broncos’ the job is half done. Research shows that when we became Harlequins people stopped supporting us, particularly those who liked Rugby League but supported other union clubs in London. There was no way they were going to support any team called Harlequins. And there is a group of league supporters who feel the same.”
Would it be fair to say that the name had led, at least in part, to the slow attendance decline the league club has experienced? “I believe it did,” he admits. “Supporters of Rugby League see themselves as different, not an addition to a union club. Hopefully those people will return. Originally there was a hope that all Harlequins union season ticket holders would become league season ticket holders. It never worked – two different games, two different supporter groups. Union people already like their own game.” And vice-versa, of course.
Which brings us back to support levels, especially the comparison between league and union. Paul Blanchard believed union marketed itself well but also had a complicit media, hence its rising attendances at the expense of Super League in London. He also suggested union could afford to fill its grounds with discounted or free tickets, something league couldn’t do. Mackay agrees: “Union has the Premiership which it markets and televises well. Like soccer, they have created something that attracts people and makes them think they are watching the best exponents in the world’s best competition. This is our challenge. Take our branded Broncos London taxis – we went for ‘Rugby League on your doorstep’ as our slogan. It’s telling people you can get in a black cab and go watch Rugby League in your home city. The game as a whole has to raise its profile. The Four Nations posters on the tube didn’t push ‘Rugby League’ hard enough. They showed Wembley, and ‘rugby’ players, but we needed people to know they were getting something different. If it’s the greatest game in the world, tell people.”
But how ‘on your doorstep’ is Rugby League in London? It’s been argued that the Stoop is quite inaccessible, even for Londoners. “At the moment we can only control what we can control,” says Mackay, “such as our brand, and squad strength. What we can’t yet control are things like where we play because we have a year left on our stadium agreement. We are renegotiating to extend this but we are exploring games on the road to take the Broncos to new markets.” We now know one of the club’s 2012 fixtures will be at Leyton Orient FC in east London. “This could help us map out our best pockets of support. One of the problems has been a lack of long-term strategy; not necessarily the fault of the Rugby League club. Ideally you’d select an area, arrange a 20-year lease on a stadium and have a 20-year strategy to match. But that’s still only an aspiration.”
Bums on seats
So what of the immediate future? The new squad is noticeably different from 2011. “We have tried to bring in marquee players. Squad depth was our problem. Now, it’s cohesive and talented under coach Rob Powell – and we have our expectations. The minimum is a play-off place. It’s a three to five year plan but it starts with the right platform in place. We have some high-profile names too, players like Craig Gower and Shane Rodney. We set out to control the things at the club which we could do something about to drive bums onto seats. We all know a successful team in any sport attracts spectators. We’ve also made structural changes. We have up to 15 football department staff and eight in admin – three more than a few months ago.”
All of which should bear fruit. But could the slow process that’s been put in train be fast-tracked by positive discrimination for clubs such as the Broncos and the Skolars of the kind that saw Paris and London promoted to Super League in 1996, for example? Can a special case be made for London? This is something Paul Blanchard had been pugnacious about, but he knew his tenure was ending and could afford to be provocative. He said positive discrimination was a no-brainer – despite opposition from supporters of northern clubs he argued that London should be treated differently. Mackay, however, is more circumspect. “We are fortunate to get excellent help from the RFL because they recognise our strategic marketplace,” he admits. “They understand sometimes the rules may be relaxed – an example is we didn’t compete in last year’s Nines Championship because the RFL understood it was logistically difficult. We also don’t attain the Super League licence attendance figure but importantly the RFL understand we are working to improve it. They use their discretion. We aim to move from a C to a B licence and we know we need to address attendance figures, playing results and commercial structure.”
All of which leaves the ultimate question for any CEO: where does he see the club in five years? Mackay is succinct: “Our mission statement is ‘To build a profitable sports business that represents London Rugby League and in doing that becomes a high performing Super League Club that our stakeholders want to be involved with’. It’s a simple as that.” He then elaborates succinctly: “We want to play at the highest level and want people to watch us. In five years I want to be able to say that this was one of the most successful periods in our history – not one-off success but consistent.”
Mackay will be up against 13 other Super League CEOs working towards the same thing for their clubs. Of all of them it could be argued that his is the most challenging role. But with a population of umpteen million people on his doorstep, it’s also perhaps the most exciting one.
This article was first published in Rugby League World Issue 370 (Feb 2012)