English Premier League

Why would a Hong Kong-based casino owner want to buy League One club Wigan Athletic based in a declining backwater in northern England?

Deal for Hong Kong-listed IEC to buy League One club from the Whelan family edged closer but what are the new owners letting themselves in for?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 February, 2018, 10:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 February, 2018, 1:25pm

Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan has reportedly agreed in principle to the sale of the League One side to Hong Kong-listed International Entertainment Corporation (IEC). 

Owned by the Cheng family’s Chow Tai Fook holdings, IEC has been described as their “casino arm”. 

It owns a “deluxe casino hotel” in the Philippines, the AG New World Manila Bay Hotel. 

The proposed deal, which has until February 14 to be ironed out, could be signed by the time the League One leaders host Manchester City in the fourth round of the FA Cup on the 21st, providing the new owners pass the Football League’s ownership tests.

The change in ownership has raised a few eyebrows – why would anyone want to buy Wigan Athletic and what are they letting themselves in for?

Where exactly is Wigan?

Located in Greater Manchester, about 25 miles from Manchester city centre, Wigan is a town of just over 100,000 people with a surrounding borough triple that size. It was built on mining and like many other towns in northern England reliant on heavy industry it has struggled in recent decades. Wigan provided the setting for George Orwell’s essay The Road to Wigan Pier, which highlighted poverty among England’s working poor in the 1930s and is also home to the World Pie Eating Championships, which are held annually.

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Traditionally a rugby league town – the Wigan Warriors, who share the DW Stadium with the football team, were founded 146 years ago. They are the most successful team in English rugby league and the current world champions, a record fourth time. Whelan also owned the Warriors until 2005. 

Who are Wigan Athletic?

The club was formed in 1932 and were non-league until 1978. Whelan took over the club in 1995 on the back of his fortune made in sportswear and by 2005 they had made it to the English Premier League

The club won the FA Cup in 2013, beating Manchester City in the final, earning a place in the Uefa Europa League the following season. The cup winning season was bittersweet as the club was also relegated from the Premier League. Whelan stood down as chairman in 2015 and appointed his grandson to the role. 

Now 26, David Sharpe is the current chairman and some fans want him to be kept on even if the takeover goes through. 

The club sit top of the English third tier having been relegated from the Championship last season. This is their second season in League One in the four since dropping out of the Premier League. 

Who are IEC?

Their website reveals: “The principal activities of the Company and its subsidiaries are hotel operations, and leasing of properties for casino and ancillary leisure and entertainment operations.”

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Is there a conflict of interest with a company involved in gaming owning a football club?

Apparently not. Premier League side Stoke City are owned by the same people as Bet 365 while nine of the 20 current top flight sides, including Stoke, have online betting companies as their shirt sponsors. Only two of those companies target the UK market, with the others banking on the Premier League’s global visibility. English football is clearly comfortable with bookmakers – the official name of Wigan’s division is Sky Bet League One – so this should not prove to be an obstacle in passing the Football League’s “fit and proper persons” test.

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Why are they interested in buying Wigan Athletic?

In their own words, as IEC announced to the HKSE in a term sheet, the company “has continued to review the existing principal businesses of the group and look for potential business opportunities in order to diversify the group’s business.

“The proposed acquisition, if materialised, represents a good opportunity to diversify the income stream of the company and broaden its revenue base.”

The company added that purchase of Wigan Athletic “may constitute a very substantial acquisition for the company.”

Has this deal come out of the blue?

The deal has been ongoing since last October according to the club, as confirmed by chief exec Jonathan Jackson at the club’s AGM last month. Wigan Today reported the takeover as an “open secret since news broke four months ago” but the identity of the buyers was secret until IEC announced their intentions to the Hong Kong stock exchange. 

What are Wigan Athletic’s finances like?

The club no longer receives parachute payments from the Premier League – their final £17.7 million (US$24.6 million) payment following relegation from the top-flight was paid last season. That accounted for most of their £25 million turnover for the year ending May 31, 2017. The club turned a £4.3 million (US$5.9 million) profit for the same period, their first since 2014.

Following the AGM in January, the BBC reported that “stripping out parachute payments, player sales and lucrative FA Cup ties, Wigan’s annual turnover hovers around £7 million.” This is a figure at the lower end of Championship clubs.

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If they are promoted then they will see an increase in their TV money – the average TV income for a League One team is £1.3 million (US$1.8 million) and clubs in the Championship that do not receive parachute payments can earn four times that, although chief executive Jonathan Jackson has warned that the Championship as “an extremely difficult environment to achieve success without significant owner investment”.

The club has saleable assets in the form of its players. Former Manchester United midfielder Nick Powell was the reported subject of a £10 million bid in the January transfer window from Premier League side Brighton. 

Does the deal include the 25,000-seater DW Stadium?

While there has been speculation that the Whelan family may retain ownership of the stadium, IEC’s deal includes transferring ownership of Wigan Athletic Holdings Limited – the majority shareholder of both Wigan Athletic AFC Limited (the football club) and Wigan Football Company Limited (the stadium) – but the stadium is not owned outright by the club. 

As Wigan Today reports, the stadium is 85 per cent owned by Wigan Football Limited and 15 per cent by Wigan Council. 

It is understood that Wigan Warriors’ long-term lease on the stadium will be unaffected by a change in ownership but there is the possibility that it could be renamed, as it was in 2009 from the JJB Stadium to the DW Stadium.

Can Wigan Athletic grow their fanbase?

That’s not likely, domestically. There are four Premier League sides within 20 miles of the DW Stadium – Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United and Manchester City – and Burnley are a touch over 30 miles down the road. There are plenty of professional clubs and ambitious non-league sides within the area and several of them are above Wigan in the league.

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That’s not to mention that the club also competes with Wigan Warriors for support.

The Warriors’ average crowd in the Super League for 2017 was 13,668. The Latics have attracted a little over 9,000 this season with bigger gates for matches against local rivals and a big FA Cup game against West Ham United.

The club only managed to average over 20,000 during their eight seasons in the Premier League and average attendance has dropped year-on-year since they were relegated. 

Will IEC be the first HK-listed company to own an English club? 

Not even close. Chinese ownership of European clubs has risen in recent years. Two Premier League clubs – Southampton and West Bromwich Albion – are owned by Chinese investors, while Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers of the Championship have mainland China or Hong Kong ownership. Wigan would be the first League One side to be owned by a Hong Kong-listed company. 

Are there any casinos in Wigan?

No, and neither are there any five-star hotels in the town. There are casinos in nearby Warrington, Widnes and Leigh, though. The world famous Wigan Casino was not a casino but a nightclub and the centre of the Northern Soul scene in the 1970s and early ’80s. Wigan is famous for its misleading names – the infamous Wigan Pier was actually a coal loading jetty on the Leeds-Liverpool canal.