NEWPORT Gwent Dragons chief executive Chris Brown has admitted the region slashed its playing budget in order to avoid going bust – but he says steps are now being taken to boost performances on the pitch.
Brown was brought in to sort out the region’s finances by former Newport owner and current Dragons board member Tony Brown (no relation) in March.
He was at the helm this summer when auditors expressed concerns over whether the region could continue as a going concern. They posted debts of £2.4million and made a loss of £270,000.
Those figures were a legacy of the construction of the Bisley Stand, which cost £5 million and was funded by Tony Brown (around £3 million) and chairman Martyn Hazell (around £2 million).
The chief executive believes that things are now looking much brighter financially and that the new stand is the future of the region.
But, while stressing the rugby specifics were not his department, he acknowledged that matters need to improve on the pitch.
“The rugby business needs to be sustainable and competitive,” he said at a meeting with Dragons fans.
“It is now much more sustainable than it was and it’s not as competitive as we would want it to be.
“If we hadn’t made the business more organised and sustainable then it wouldn’t have been here in the long term.
“That was a remit for me to get to grips with and to do something about.
“The plan this year is to break even or make some profit,” he continued.
“That is the first thing I talked about in terms of sustainability. What we haven’t got at the moment is competitiveness.
“Being competitive is terribly important to us – we have got to get a product on the pitch and you can rest assured we spend a lot of time talking about that with coaches, talking about that with players and amongst ourselves, with the directors.
“It isn’t just a talking shop; we do plan to come up with some actions. But the first thing we have to be is sustainable.”
The two issues do, however, go hand in hand and Brown acknowledged that on-field performance was not acceptable.
The chief executive said that the aim by 2020 – a speculative date set by the management team in terms of their long-term goals – was to be competitive in Europe’s primary competition.
Given that the Dragons have not been in the Heineken Cup for two seasons and that they lag behind their Welsh rivals in the RaboDirect Pro12, plenty of work needs to be done to realise such ambitions.
“We said at the start of the season that we would like to be the third team in Wales,” said Brown. “That’s not going well and we are looking at that very seriously.
“Without going into specifics, we have talked about the need for more strength in depth, strength in terms of foreign players and key players in core positions.
“And given that the performance is poor you can rest assured that the coaches and coaching staff are under an awful lot of pressure to succeed.
“But is finishing one from bottom and breaking even a successful year? Yes, in that it is so much better than going bust.”
When asked about the composition of the board and whether there was a danger of it resembling “a gentleman’s club”, Brown insisted that they are on the lookout for new blood and fresh ideas.
But he emphasised that their primary objective was to get the business on a sound footing rather than hunting for sugar daddies.
“One of the negatives of Welsh rugby is that it relies on benefactors, and a small number of them,” said Brown.
“Being sustainable in the long term is about not relying on Tony Brown or not relying on (Dragons board member and Celtic Manor chief executive) Dylan Matthews for that matter.
“He has come on to the board to bring his expertise, he has masses of expertise within his organisation.
“It’s not about him taking over a benefactor role. We want a sustainable business and that’s one of the absolute difficulties within Welsh rugby.
“Tony does not want to put any more money into this business and having a sustainable business is about bringing in new people and that is what we are trying to do.
“Not relying on benefactors old and new? Absolutely. Bringing new people and ideas in? Absolutely.”
Brown also said he believes the groundshare with Newport County – which has a one-season release clause – is worth continuing.
“The football was and is a good opportunity for this business and (the groundshare) is something that I believe we should carry on doing.
“There were and are some weaknesses with regard to football, perhaps the biggest one is the pitch, so we do have to watch this space.
“But in terms of a commercial opportunity we feel it’s one that we have grasped reasonably well.
“There are aspects we would do differently but Newport County doing well in their league is good for hospitality, catering and income. It’s working quite well.”