WIN strikes St George Illawarra Dragons’ NRL ownership deal

New model: St George Illawarra have finalised their ownership structure. Picture: NRL Photos
New model: St George Illawarra have finalised their ownership structure. Picture: NRL Photos

WIN Corporation and its multi-millionaire owner Bruce Gordon have finally struck a deal that will partially privatise the Dragons, just months after the television network walked away from negotiations to buy a stake in the club.

Fairfax Media understands more than two years of on-again, off-again talks between St George Illawarra and the media company have finally reached an agreement, with the Dragons expected to confirm their new ownership structure on the eve of the finals series.

It's believed an announcement could come as early as this week.

Under the deal, it is believed the Dragons' multimillion-dollar loan sourced from the NRL will be repaid and their home-game allocation, with matches at Kogarah and Wollongong, will remain largely intact.

And the sale will conclude one of the last points of business for retiring chief executive Peter Doust, the longest-serving NRL club boss, who has been in charge of the Dragons for 18 years. He will step down at the end of the season.

The WIN sale will also cap one of the most tumultuous periods in the joint-venture's history after the Dragons first floated the idea of privatising the Illawarra Steelers' equity in the club in late 2014.

WIN Corporation was always the preferred option, given its Wollongong headquarters and long-standing ties with both the Dragons and Steelers.

But the company told St George Illawarra officials it was no longer interested in assuming a 50 per cent stake in the club back in April, casting doubt over the Dragons' ability to find a suitable buyer before the end of 2018.

The Dragons were unbeaten ladder leaders at the time and had just been installed as premiership favourites with bookmakers.

WIN had insisted it would maintain a commercial relationship with St George Illawarra and remain a sponsor of the club, but its reluctance to progress with ownership talks was thought to be a big blow to the Dragons.

Gordon and his son Andrew, a St George Illawarra director, briefly considered launching a fresh bid independently of WIN Corporation to assume the Steelers' share in St George Illawarra as other interested purchasers circled. But later, under the guise of WIN Corporation, they quietly returned to the negotiating table in the hope of snapping up an interest in one of the NRL's most recognisable franchises.

Private investment in NRL clubs has become a much more attractive option under a funding agreement that sees clubs paid $3 million above the salary cap for the length of the existing broadcast cycle.

Football department spending has also been capped, putting an end to the arm's race in which clubs felt compelled to spend freely to remain competitive with their cashed-up rivals.

The issue of private ownership has been a hot one for the NRL in the past year after deals were struck to take Newcastle and Gold Coast off the market while a raft of buyers were earlier this year being mobilised to take the Sea Eagles off the hands of the Penn family.

The Dragons are guaranteed to be featuring in just their second finals series in the past seven years after a morale-boosting win over the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday night, which powered them back into fourth spot.