Simon Orange took over Sale in 2016
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Simon Orange is used to having noisy sporting neighbours, so he has a knack of getting his point across in a measured but assertive manner. The neighbours in question for the Sale Sharks owner are the two Manchester footballing giants: City and United. Barring their sole Premiership win in 2006, Sale have always had to fight for attention in the North West’s congested sporting marketplace, where the success, glamour and riches of football and the traditions of rugby league mean that union has been a fringe interest.
However, Orange, who made his fortune as a corporate acquisitions specialist, knows exactly how it feels to be one of those fans his club are keen to lure to the AJ Bell Stadium; he, too, was once a complete rugby outsider. “We didn’t play rugby where I grew up – it was football or stealing and fighting,” he says of his childhood in Manchester. “It has been an upper and middle class sport and when I was growing up I thought rugby was a bunch of men running into each other. I had no interest. I think a lot of the population might feel the same as I did.”
Orange has the idea that may seem strange to rugby purists but which is how American football has gained a foothold in the British market: explain the sport simply to those who have never played. “If someone explains it to you properly, it is a fantastic sport to get into,” he says. “Premiership Rugby have realised we need to do much more to grow the game. And I believe the way to get the sport out to a wider audience is to somehow explain the game.
“Maybe, we put a game on free-to-air every week, commentators explaining what is happening and why. It only takes you half a dozen games to really understand if someone tells you why someone is kicking, what is happening at the ruck or what is happening at the scrum. I think we would grow the game if we talked beginners through it, because if you never played it growing up, there is no chance you will get into it.”
Orange has designs on winning over the British public but, for now, the great conversion to rugby has started closer to home. “My mum and dad and a few of my brothers are into it now, but the most they ever learn, because they didn’t grow up with it, is if they are watching with someone who will explain,” he says. “I watched half a dozen games with my friends and I learnt quickly. I bet 80 per cent of the population don’t understand when you have to kick on the full or when you have to land it on the pitch.”
The Orange years at Sale
One Orange family member who has yet to be bitten by the rugby bug is brother Jason, the former Take That singer. “Jason is not into rugby, two or three of my other brothers and my mum got into it but Jason was too busy doing what he is doing to watch rugby,” Orange laughs.
Since he took over the club with Ged Mason in 2016, Sale have become a family affair for Orange, with wife, Michelle, instrumental in urging her husband to keep investing in the club. She was key to the establishment of a women’s franchise in the Premier 15s but, as her husband explains, she is an even more enthusiastic benefactor than he is at times.
With another chuckle, he explains how owning a rugby club has shaped his marriage: “When we took over Sale, we didn’t lose that much money in comparison to other clubs, and so Michelle has been an influence on me, getting me to invest more in the club to try and build it. She is very passionate about it and it makes life a lot easier if we are both on the same page rather than having to hide or justify how much this club costs us. Michelle is gung-ho, if I let her loose, she would probably bankrupt us running this club!”
Just as Orange is honest about how he believes rugby needs to open itself up to a broader audience, he believes that Sale – with a play-off place secure – can offer a lot more bang to a potential commercial partner than their footballing neighbours.
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He is, of course, at pains to point out that he respects City and United; he just wants a slice of the sponsorship action for his club.
“Our star players can do much more with a commercial partner. We do much more than, say, a United or a City. I don’t want to be having a go at those clubs, but £250,000 for United might get you a box amongst 100 boxes,” he says.
“But £250,000 to Sale Sharks gives you proper VIP status and we can tailor whatever you want for people, whether they want access to me as the owner, to Alex [Sanderson] as the director of rugby, whether they want access to the players… I am not saying they can get what they want, but, within reason, they can be a much bigger fish in the rugby pond than they would elsewhere.”
Alex Sanderson has led Sale to a top-four finish in his first season as director of rugby
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Much has been written about how Sanderson this season has got the best out of a mix of home-grown talent, including the Curry twins, combined with the star power of the likes of Faf de Klerk. Again, Orange is happy to explain how his side’s carefully “curated” but much smaller squad have been a hit this season – fewer players means higher salaries.
“The average salary will be 30 per cent higher than at all the other clubs because we realised we can have fewer players. We have a great analyst here and it has meant we can hand-pick [players] where we are short.”
With Sale the only Premiership club in the region, it gives the Sharks the pick of the local talent to combine with the best on the market. “We have always been on the top end of providing England Under-20 players. People slag us off for having too many South Africans but it is definitely a mix. Even while we are doing well, we are bringing the young lads through.”
Orange is again not afraid to hold back when asked what the experience of owning a club is like.
“If I knew how hard it was going to be irrespective of Covid, it is something I may not have done. But it is too late, we are in and committed for the long term.”