Nigel Wood- CEO, RFL Share PDF Print E-mail
Profile of the week
Nigel joined the RFL in 2001 when he authored the RFL Strategic Review. The Review made over 120 recommendations, the most fundamental of which instigated the RFL Governance Structure, the creation of the Independent Board of Directors and the re-unification of Super League (Europe) Ltd into the RFL.
In 2002 Nigel was appointed Finance Director and led the RFL’s financial recovery from the losses of 2001 and the incorporation process which was concluded in 2003, where upon he was appointed chief Operating Officer.
Nigel became Chief Executive in November 2007 and takes responsibility for day-to-day running of the RFL. Nigel is also a director of Super League (Europe) Ltd, a position he has held since the creation of the company in 1996. Over the past three years, under Nigel’s stewardship, the RFL has seen consecutive years of increased turnover from £13.4 million in 2007 to £21.9million in 2009.
Prior to working for the RFL, Nigel was Chief Executive of Super League Club Halifax Blue Sox and Deputy Head of Finance for BBC North.
By Edward Rangsi
Prior to your rugby career, you had a stint as the Deputy Head of Finance for BBC North. How has that experience helped in the sports industry?
It was a real good grounding. The BBC has a long and proud track record of covering sport and in particular, across both local radio and regional television. To a large extent, it gives you an understanding of the importance of having good broadcasting partnerships, which Rugby League is blessed to have.
What would you say was the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of running one of Rugby League’s most historic club, Halifax?
It was always privilege to run a club that was a lot of people’s second favourite club. I spoke to a lot of people, who might be Wigan supports or St Helens supporters, but they always have a quiet respect for Halifax because it was a traditional Rugby League club, it had a knowledgeable fan base, it produced good quality players, a decent trophy cabinet and honours board. It is also, the biggest sporting team in the town so it carries their sporting hopes, which can prove both a burden and a privilege. The other thing that was pleasing was that I use to play there in the famous blue and white jumpers for a number of years so there’s a bit of pride from a personal perspective.
The challenge was always punching above your weight as a club. Even though the sport has a very successful salary cap, the clubs with deepest pockets and the greatest resources are the ones that tend to attract the best talent. When you’re playing in front of 5,000 people and other clubs are playing in front of 10,000, you have to be very innovative and have great survival instincts to continually put a team out on the park that is capable of doing justice to the league, that is capable of winning its fair share of games and is also capable of making progress off the field.
Without fear of contradiction, I can put my hand on my heart and say there was not a day of work that wasn’t a significant challenge in every dimension. But, it was a terrific training ground to learn all aspects of the challenges of running professional sports clubs in the current era.
How important was the move from Thrum Hall to the Shay Stadium?
You’ll be familiar of the revolution that took place in sports facilities and sports stadia on the back of some of the tragedies that occurred in the 80s - Valley Parade and Hillsborough. There was a whole new industry created around safety at sports grounds and improving customer comfort. Of course, whilst it was stimulated originally by the issues that were in football, the ramifications were that the other professional sports had an obligation to consider how it provided spectator accommodation. The difference was that there weren’t the great sums of money available in rugby league to the extent that it was in football to finance this revolution.
As far as Halifax was concerned, as a former player, I can testify to the intimacy of that ground and the unique place it had in the history of the sport. It was an intimate, intimidating, atmospheric ground, but even its most strident advocate will never claim that it was fit for the 21st century in terms of the standards of spectator accommodations that people demand and deserve. There was one old stand that was condemned for being made out of wood and it became an illegal structure. Not withstanding all that, the most important thing was providing a facility deserving of the athletes, supporters and commercial partners.
Moving on the right terms was exactly the right thing to do because the club went there as a partner rather than a tenant. The club now has a terrific venue where all four sides are covered and it’s a daunting 21st century ground for that level of the sport. It wasn’t a straight forward decision. Moving spiritual homes is never an easy and not one to be taken likely. Arguably, it’s the single biggest decision a club can be asked to make, but in truth there wasn’t much of an alternative for Halifax.
It must have been difficult to watch the money made from the sale of Thrum Hall, swallowed by debt.
Certainly it was. There were some peculiar circumstances. It took a long time, something like four years, before the actual proceeds of the sale came through from the trustees and over that period there was an erosion of the benefit of doing it. Not withstanding that, the facility that they have now is still a fantastic facility. I think anybody who dispassionately compares the facility they’ve got now to the one they had then would be hard pressed to say that the current facility is not a considerable improvement and that’s the objective at the end of the day, to move the club so that it’s fit for purpose.
Halifax went to Jacksonville University, Florida, to help develop American Rugby League in 2000. Is there enough being done to help develop the game overseas, where it’s not so much a main sport?
By comparison to other sports, probably the answer is ‘no’. For instance, the IRB or the ICC, if you look at the resources that they divert into international development, they are sums that dwarf anything Rugby League has to offer. I think we have to understand that both Rugby Union and Cricket have significantly matured and developed international games that generate significant revenues that enrich the international federations to allow them to do a lot more. There are probably only four or five nations that are competitive internationally in terms of generating significant wealth on behalf of the international game to then reinvest in other parts of the world where Rugby League has got a toehold and needs some nurturing. One of the great aspirations of running the 2013 World Cup is to give the international game the opportunity to generate some revenue, so it can do some good over the next four year cycle.
After five years, you moved to the Rugby Football League. What was the biggest difference you noticed?
I think the biggest difference is that there were some resources at the RFL and other people that were capable of providing guidance. At the club, we had an off-field headcount of three or four people, whereas at the RFL there’s many times more than that.
The challenges were the same; it’s about insuring that you give a good value on behalf of the shareholders and clubs. One of the greatest things that all governing bodies have to remember is that they’re there to serve the needs of their membership, meaning being empathetic to the challenges and struggles. One of the greatest points of reference for any governing body will always be how will this play out will and how’s your club membership because you have to make decisions that are in their best interest.
You led the organisation's financial recovery, which resulted in the incorporation in 2006 as well as consecutive years of profitable trading. What was the key?
When we walked through the door here, there wasn’t a good handle on either where the money came from or more importantly where the money went. We had to remind ourselves where the income streams were and be diligent about the cost control that went with it. More importantly, made sure we had enough commercially focused members of staff, who were there to raise money on behalf of the sport, whether that came in the form of television revenues, commercial sponsorships or public sectors grants. The challenge was to get the governing body a bit lighter on its feet, a bit commercially focused and a little bit more entrepreneurial.
You have authored key strategy documents for Super League (Europe) Limited and the National League clubs which set out the future strategies and collective business plans. What needs to be considered when conjuring up these documents?
Most fair-minded sports observers who watch the sport being played think this is a great sport, its athletes are first-class, the amount of respect shown on the field is terrific, and the practical and technical ability of the play is of the highest order. So, the questions are why don’t more people watch it? And, what are we going to do about that?
Some of the reasons are fairly obvious because for a number of years the game has been played extensively in three counties across the North of England, the rest of the country needs to be given access to real live Rugby League. So, a lot of we’ve done has been about developing the sport in different parts of the country at various levels and indeed next year we’ll be launching four new Championship clubs. There’s a lot of focus on unlocking the potential the sport.
The second area is how we make the national side as competitive as possible. Again, we all know that our international opponents are frankly blessed with a talent production line that keeps delivering because in Queensland, New South Wales and much of New Zealand, football is not the omnipresent sport that it is in England. So, the grade-A athletes on a whole tend to play rugby league. They’ve got a significant leg up and that’s fine, as long as we understand that we’ve got to finds ways to make sure that the talent that we produce gives us a fighting chance of being the world’s best.
This year the main topic has been the switch from a winter to a summer based sport at all levels. Why do you think this move was necessary? Why do you think it’ll be a success?
This is a massive story and it’s been underreported so far. It’s almost like the quiet revolution. When we talk about summer and winter it’s slightly misleading because we actually play nine months of the year. What we’re really saying is, everybody’s fine with spring and autumn, but there’s a preference for summer over winter. That’s the reality because the conditions to participate are better, it will give the people that participate in the sport the chance to demonstrate their skills in the best possible way and it should be an all-round more enjoyable experience.
Anyway, many people who play rugby union for instance in different parts of the country play rugby league in the summer as a method of keeping fit. I’ve lost count of the number of holidays I went on as a boy, when we would watch somebody training at a Rugby Union venue where they would all play touch-and-pass rugby league. So, it’s not such a quantum shift.
By the way, the sport that I was playing a thousand years ago is still available, when rolling around in the mud might have been the norm and when running around getting hypothermia might have been some people’s idea of a good Saturday afternoon out. Our job as a governing body is not to say you have to play at a particular time, what our job is to say we need an easily understandable national framework that passes the Wikipedia test.
How are the preparations for the 2013 World Cup going?
Preparations are going really well. We have an excellent executive team, led by Sally Bolton and our work is more advanced than it has ever been. Our challenge is to make the 2013 Rugby League World Cup the best ever from every aspect; number of spectators, number of viewers, the entertainment offer on the field. We’re pretty pleased with how things are going, but we are under no illusion that the next twenty months are the most important months for the sport. 2012/2013 has to be great years for rugby league and we’re pretty confident they will be.
What was the thinking behind having England, Ireland, Wales and France jointly host the World Cup?
Wales have been very energetic and enthusiastic in there approach to us over the course of the last ten years. In particular, we had a number of big events down in Cardiff and we’ve now got semi-professional teams playing in the country and a thriving community game. So, the actual formal hosts are England and Wales.
Given that France has a quite mature rugby league competition and a full-time Super League club in Perpignan, they made representation to stage a couple of games because in reality, that will be a very commercially attractive proposition to the World Cup. Ireland are in a different place in their evolution, but similarly put their hands up and said it’ll give us a real boost from a development perspective if Rugby League Ireland could take responsibility in staging a game.
What we tried to do is balance playing these matches in what used to be called the ‘traditional heartlands’ because clearly we want to make them accessible to the majority of Rugby League supporters, but at the same time, we recognise that there has to be an obligation to the wider cause of Rugby League in Europe by giving some other cities a chance to stage games. I think that we’ve found the right balance.
Obviously the World Cup is tremendously important, but how else will the RFL will grow its business? What new revenue sources do you foresee?
We’re just commencing a new five-year television deal so the central income stream for the sport has been recently renegotiated. More excitingly, we just recruited a new Commercial Director called James Mercer, who has a proven track record in moving forward commercial income streams for a variety of sports. We expect him to make a big impact. I think there are opportunities in sponsorship that we have yet to unlock and there’s an opportunity in international club football that hasn’t yet been properly exploited. There are some complications in that we have to travel 12,000 miles to get international club football, which means mid-week games aren’t an option as they are in other sports, but nevertheless we need to put some energy into making that happen.
How are the talks going with the Aussies?
Relations are pretty good at the moment. There’s a new commission in the National Rugby League that have just taken control, so there are some new relationships to form, but I think there’s always an understanding that it’s in the sport’s best interest if the UK and Australia works well together.
You briefly mentioned your playing career. How were you as a player?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘gifted amateur’, well I was half of a ‘gifted amateur’. I won’t tell you which half, you can draw your own conclusions. I think Rugby League is a fantastic sport, which makes men out of boys. It teaches good values, self discipline, fraternity, companionship, bravery, courage and it makes for great life experiences. I have no hesitation commending it to my children. I’m a keen fan.

Nigel Wood Cropped 1

Nigel Wood joined the RFL in 2001 when he authored the RFL Strategic Review. The Review made over 120 recommendations, the most fundamental of which instigated the RFL Governance Structure, the creation of the Independent Board of Directors and the re-unification of Super League (Europe) Ltd into the RFL.

In 2002 Nigel was appointed Finance Director and led the RFL’s financial recovery from the losses of 2001 and the incorporation process which was concluded in 2003, where upon he was appointed Chief Operating Officer.

Nigel became Chief Executive in November 2007 and takes responsibility for day-to-day running of the RFL. Nigel is also a director of Super League (Europe) Ltd, a position he has held since the creation of the company in 1996. Over the past three years, under Nigel’s stewardship, the RFL has seen consecutive years of increased turnover from £13.4 million in 2007 to £21.9million in 2009.

Prior to working for the RFL, Nigel was Chief Executive of Super League Club Halifax Blue Sox and Deputy Head of Finance for BBC North. 

By Edward Rangsi


Prior to your rugby career, you had a stint as the Deputy Head of Finance for BBC North. How has that experience helped in the sports industry?

It was a real good grounding. The BBC has a long and proud track record of covering sport, particularly across both local radio and regional television. To a large extent, it gives you an understanding of the importance of having good broadcasting partnerships, which Rugby League is blessed to have.

What would you consider to be the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of running one of Rugby League’s most historic club, Halifax?

It was always privilege to run a club that was a lot of people’s second favourite club. I spoke to a lot of people, who might be Wigan supporters or St Helens supporters, but they always have a quiet respect for Halifax because it was a traditional Rugby League club; it had a knowledgeable fan base, it produced good quality players, had a decent trophy cabinet and honours board. Also, it is the biggest sporting team in the town so it carries their sporting hopes, which can prove both a burden and a privilege. The other thing that was pleasing was that I use to play there in the famous blue and white jumpers for a number of years so there’s a bit of pride from a personal perspective.

The challenge was that we were always punching above your weight as a club. Even though the sport has a very successful salary cap, the clubs with the deepest pockets and the greatest resources are the ones that tend to attract the best talent. When you’re playing in front of 5,000 people and other clubs are playing in front of 10,000, you have to be very innovative and have great survival instincts to continually put a team out on the park that is capable of doing justice to the league, that is capable of winning its fair share of games and that is also capable of making progress off the field.

Without fear of contradiction, I can put my hand on my heart and say there was not a day of work that wasn’t a significant challenge in every dimension. But, it was a terrific training ground to learn all aspects of running a professional sports club in the current era. 

 

How important was the move from Thrum Hall to the Shay Stadium?

You’ll be familiar of the revolution that took place in sports facilities and sports stadia on the back of some of the tragedies that occurred in the 80s. There was a whole new industry created around safety at sports grounds and improving customer comfort. Of course, whilst it was stimulated originally by the issues that were in football, the ramifications were that the other professional sports had an obligation to consider how it provided spectator accommodation. The difference was that there weren’t the great sums of money available in rugby league to the extent that it was in football to finance this revolution. 

As far as Halifax was concerned, as a former player, I can testify to the intimacy of that ground and the unique place it had in the history of the sport. It was an intimate, intimidating, atmospheric ground, but even its most strident advocate will never claim that it was fit for the 21st century in terms of the standards of spectator accommodation that people demand and deserve. There was one old stand that was condemned for being made out of wood and it became an illegal structure. Not withstanding all that, the most important thing was providing a facility deserving of the athletes, supporters and commercial partners. 

Moving on the right terms was exactly the right thing to do because the club went there as a partner rather than a tenant. The club now has a terrific venue where all four sides are covered and it’s a daunting 21st century ground for that level of the sport. It wasn’t a straight forward decision. Moving spiritual homes is never an easy decision and not one to be taken likely. Arguably, it’s the single biggest decision a club can be asked to make, but in truth there wasn’t much of an alternative for Halifax.

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