In a Premier League where money talks and those with money to spend are the dominant teams in the league, everyone loves an underdog. Even better than an underdog, is a Cinderella story, where a club with a fraction of the resources as one of the big Premier League teams manages to get into the league and valiantly battles relegation. In the Premier League in the past few seasons there have been a few clubs given the Cinderella tag such as Burnley, Blackpool and this season’s story in the making, Swansea. I think that there is another club far more deserving of the tag. A club that because they have been in the Premier League for a few seasons, people have forgotten just what an achievement their presence in the league is. The club in question is Wigan Athletic.
It cannot be understated just how much of a feat it is that Wigan has managed to stay in the Premier League for six years. Wigan are underdogs in every sense of the word. They are without question the smallest club in the Premier League. They have the lowest revenue in the Premier League, the smallest crowds, the heaviest reliance on TV money, the highest proportion of wages to turnover in the league and no money to spend on transfers.
Wigan are known (and mocked) for having small attendances despite the fact that they are consistently amongst the cheapest teams in the Premier League to go and watch (they have the second cheapest ticket in the Premier League, their most expensive ticket is cheaper than the cheapest ticket of 9 other Premier League teams) and cheap season tickets, last season Wigan had the 6th cheapest season ticket of all 92 English league clubs. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never been to see Wigan play in the Premier League (an oversight I hope to correct this season), despite only living about 25 minutes away.
Wigan also have probably the smallest potential fanbase out of any Premier League team with the most competition for those fans from other teams than any other Premier League team. Wigan is a town of about 80,000 people, which lies roughly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, and is less than 10 miles from Bolton, and Blackburn isn’t far away either. Apart from those six other Premier League teams that Wigan residents could (and do) support at the expense of Wigan, there is a raft of other league clubs not too far away to choose from.
Many Wigan residents are originally from Manchester or Liverpool, so have passed down their love of Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United or Manchester City to their children. Also, for years there wasn’t a league team in Wigan, Wigan Athletic only became a league club in 1978, so many football fans in Wigan already supported another side, putting Wigan on the back foot immediately.
Wigan had never been in the top division of English football before their promotion to the Premier League in 2005. Indeed, when Dave Whelan bought the club in 1995, they were in the third division (what is now League Two), the bottom division in English league football, which makes their rise to the top even more impressive. So they don’t have much have a football pedigree compared any of the other clubs around them, both geographically and in terms of where they are in the Premier League pecking order.
Wigan also suffers from the fact that unlike most other towns in the country, football isn’t the dominant sport in Wigan. Wigan is world-renowned for Rugby League. The Wigan Warriors are one of England’s strongest and best-supported teams, and share the DW stadium with Wigan Athletic. Surveys taken around the ground suggest that most fans don’t cross-over, so the Rugby fans don’t go to watch the football and vice-versa.
Wigan just cannot compete with the other Premier League teams financially, having one of the smallest turnovers in the league. Commercially, Wigan only generate about £1.5m per season, which is extremely low even compared to Premier League clubs of a similar size. For example, Blackburn, who are not much bigger than Wigan, made £9m commercially (according to last published figures, though it’s probably more now since Venky’s took them over). Wigan’s last shirt sponsorship deal only made them £650k per season, which is miniscule when compared to Liverpool’s £20m per season. So Wigan just don’t have the financial resources of other Premier League clubs and haven’t been able to cash in the Premier League’s global appeal.
Wigan’s payroll is a relatively modest £36m (Chelsea’s is five times larger), but with Wigan’s income being so small, they have a wages to turnover ratio of 91%, which is the second highest in the league after Manchester City’s ridiculous 107%. This would mean that Wigan would fall foul of UEFA’s new Financial Fair Play regulations should they ever qualify for European competition. They rely heavily on player sales to keep them active in the transfer market (they have a total net spend of only £5m in the last decade), which they’ve managed to achieve by buying players cheaply and selling at an increased price, like they did with Luis Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios. It also means that any mistakes in the transfer market hit them harder that they do most other clubs. Mauro Boselli’s transfer for example, has proven to be a total disaster both on and off the pitch for Wigan.
Wigan are also somewhat fortunate in that they have Dave Whelan as their owner. Whelan is a controversial figure, who’s not afraid to speak his mind and isn’t particularly well-liked, but he is probably the reason Wigan are financially afloat. Wigan are in debt, to the tune of £73m in 2010. When you compare that to many other clubs in the league, that is a drop in the ocean, but to a club with the low turnover of Wigan, it’s huge. Luckily, the majority of the debt is owed to Whelan, who has set no repayment dates for any money owed to him and has allowed all of the loans to be unsecured and charges no interest. Whelan has also converted some of the debts into equity, meaning that if he walks away Wigan won’t be saddled with large debts. Whelan has also promised to sell the club for £50 “if the right man comes along”, which is the niminal figure Sir Jack Heyward sold Wolves for.
Looking at Wigan’s squad at present, it’s difficult to see how they’ll do anything other than be in a relegation fight once more this season, particularly after selling Charles N’Zogbia and, at the time of writing, not having replaced him. Wigan have not really made any substantial improvements this summer (but neither have many of the teams around them), although David Jones may turn out to be a good signing, and they’ll probably end up getting a few good young players on loan, like they did last season with Tom Cleverley from Man United. But, they do have in their favour one of the most promising managers in the Premier League in Roberto Martinez, who likes his teams to play attractive attacking football and he’s instilled a ‘never-say-die’ attitude, which serves Wigan well.
While Wigan’s season will most probably be another relegation battle from the start, one thing that all Premier League fans will know is that Wigan will fight every step of the way to survive. I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to avoid relegation once again, after all, their mere presence in the Premier League defies the odds already.