16 December 2012

I have been avoiding blogging about the Sharks in the hope that, eventually, luck might change and they start to turn the corner before relegation or, even worse, bankruptcy.

Tonight’s performance in the South of France against Toulon was the worst in the history of the Heineken Cup, a whopping 62 to zero annihilation.

So what went wrong and when?

It started a few years ago when I got a phone call from Charlie Hodgson. I was on holiday at the time. He’d been messed around by the management, just like so many other players and sponsors alike, over contract renewals. Sadly, in spite of the club realising the error of their ways in later months, Charlie reluctantly signed for Saracens and the club lost their greatest asset.

Charlie Hodgson the night he won player of the year at Sale Sharks

Charlie Hodgson the night he won player of the year for the last time at Sale Sharks

You could argue that that wasn’t the first bitter blow. St Andre leaving and the exodus of some of the greatest players in World Rugby marked the real start, but everyone I spoke to, and I am close to a number of them, expressed massive discontent in the way they were treated during the negotiations.

I, myself, had suffered after AMD failed to renew their contract for the main shirt sponsor spot. Nathan Bombrys brought a contract to my office and explained that the club was in deep trouble. I spoke at length with my wife Gail and we decided the right thing to do was help. We agreed to be the main shirt sponsor, wrote the cheque and signed the contract.

A week later, Niels De Vos ripped up the contract and refused to honour it when McAffee offerered the club the same money. He and Brian Kennedy felt that going with a bigger brand was the right thing to do, in spite of not getting a penny more. To add insult to injury, they won the premiership that year!

In spite of all the upset, we decided to stick with the club and continue to support them and, true to our ambition, when the opportunity arose a few years later, we stepped in and took the main slot again. Sadly, for a lot more than the original price we’d been promised!

I look back at those times with affection.

We had always put a huge amount of resources into the marketing of the club, lending the club our designers, but being the main sponsor justified us taking it to another level. For more than a decade, we wrote, coded and managed the Sharks website and produced the vast majority of their marketing.

But in the back-room, things were never settled. Niels left to run British Athletics and Nathan, who essentially ran the commercial show, worked with us to continue to fill the stadium.

However, with Niels gone, the CEO position kept changing hands and with that came distractions. Steve Jobs talks of “removing distractions” as an essential part of success. New people came in and each made their mark and changed the winning formula, off the pitch.

The once supersonic website that provided instant information was replaced, just like us, for a cumbersome effort that requires 5 actions to obtain simple information like match reports, and the web designers who took over the hosting removed the site from a £100,000 solution to a shared web server in the US.

Our services, which were free, were swapped for staff and suppliers who now cost the club more than £100k per year.

So what’s the outcome?

Well, the club decided to move grounds after Mick Hogan decided the reason that the ground was not full was because the stadium was old. If he’d come a year or two earlier he wouldn’t have got a ticket as we were sold out! In that same stadium.

His parting shot before he was removed as CEO was to sign a contract with Peel for the use of the City of Salford Stadium, so the once free stadium that Brian Kennedy had negotiated away from the Stockport County fans was replaced for, as I understand it, a cost of £40,000 per match.

All this and the Sharks are now down to their lowest visitor numbers I can remember.

I have learned that relationships are the only things that matter in business. Not just with clients, but with team mates to boot. I believe that people go the extra mile when you treat them genuinely, and I firmly subscribe to the lesson Branson gave me, saying, “people whither with under criticism and thrive when praised.”

It was this constant negativity towards players and people in the back office that made us pull out as a sponsor in the end. We can only be aligned with like-minded businesses and some of the stories we heard convinced us that it was time to move on. The final straw was when my eight-month pregnant wife was told by Ian Blackhurst’s security that she wasn’t allowed to use the ladies toilet she’d been using for 10 years, as he’d reserved the area for his guests.

It was game over for me at this point and with more and more players saying they were leaving, as well as Nathan Bombrys who had been instrumental in filling the stadium, it was obvious that the season ahead, the one we are in now, was going to be a troublesome one.

We were told at the beginning of the season that Steve Diamond was the answer. He now just looks like the next impending casualty.

So, with the club on the verge of bankruptcy, why doesn’t multi-millionaire Brian Kennedy reinvest and start to run it properly? The challenge here is that it’s a very different business to double-glazing, the trade Brian’s made most of his money in. It really could do with someone who understands the importance of long-term relationships.

I have contacted Brian a number of times to offer my help but he seems disinterested and, most recently, left the running of the club to Ian Blackhurst.

Brian bought the club back in 1999 for £1. But with the loss of the Edgeley Park and the tie-in to the new stadium with the associated costs, it will take someone with incredibly deep pockets and a real love of rugby to step into this game. If they were back at the old ground, hadn’t got the commitments to the new stadium and were at the beginning of  the season, I’d have thrown my hat into the ring. But with relegation more than a strong possibility, with only six points out of 10 games and six points behind the penultimate team, the question on everyone’s lips is now, “how will the Sharks avoid bankruptcy, let alone relegation?”

John Everton was amongst a few casualties this week. John is an incredible journalist and loved by all the players and officials right across the premiership.

He’s been doing the match reports, interviews and contributing to the programme for years. In spite of content being the most important thing when marketing a business online, the club chose to let him go whilst keeping the people responsible for the current marketing and decline of the number of spectators.

LeeThomas-LawrenceJones at Training Ground

There are around 15 to 20,000 Sharks fans in and around Manchester and Cheshire. We are all praying for a miracle and, whilst one might come on the pitch, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results off the pitch is, as Albert Einstein described it, insanity.



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