How Wigan Warriors' historic clash with Bath RU helped launch sportswear firm Optimum
If Pete Moran was the sentimental type, he may have got misty-eyed at the 25th anniversary of the Bath-Wigan game a few days ago.
Because it was during that historic match that his innovative shoulder pads – Optimum – made their debut on the considerable shoulders of Wigan captain Andy Farrell.
From a single item stitched together by his mum on her sewing machine, his company has spawned into an international brand with a multi-million pound turnover.
And while shoulder pads are no longer essential items for rugby players, Optimum has stretched out into kit, sportswear and equipment, producing and selling everything from baseball bats to football boots to cycling gear around the world.
Founder Moran, a proud Wiganer, is not one for fuss or fanfare but understandably talks with pride about the growth of Optimum since its humble beginnings.
The idea, he says, spawned from some homemade pads his mum had made him when he was a junior player.
He explained: “I was filming a sports science segment about tackle technique.
“I had to tackle Andy Northey – he went on to play for St Helens – and they kept asking me to do it again, do it again...
“Afterwards, I was bruised all over. I remembered my mum had made me some shoulder pads to play in the English schools, because they were banned then, so I asked her to make me some more.”
In the early-90s, shoulder pads were cumbersome and unattractive. Moran’s idea was for a stylish, thinner and lighter garment.
“I’d done a masters degree in exercise physiology so I knew what I wanted and I knew what I was talking about, and I knew the sport,” he said.
“It was literally my mum with a sewing machine, at home, with me saying, ‘Can you just move that foam over there a bit...’
“It was skin tight, breathable fabric, moveable padding, you could wash it, it was light... and it looked good.”
When he had the pads as he wanted them, Moran then needed a name. He settled on ‘Optimum’ for three reasons – he liked it, it portrayed premium quality “and it had ‘mum’ in the word!”
By then, Moran was already well known in rugby circles locally, having previously left hometown club Wigan to join Leigh while studying at university.
His ties to the local rugby scene helped him spread the awareness of his homemade Optimum pads, with Andy Gregory among those who helped him out in the early days.
Then, in 1996, when Wigan completed their crosscode challenge by taking on Bath at Twickenham, Farrell wore them for the 44-19 loss at Twickenham – with viewers seeing them as he swapped shirts with an opponent after the games.
“We’d done some samples, but Andy Farrell in that Bath game was the first game it was used in,” said Moran, who set up an office in Rowbottom Square, in Wigan.
“The growth of (Optimum) ties in with the Bath-Wigan game, because they noticed that the rugby league lads were lightyears ahead. The union fellas started looking at league and realising they were athletes, and started looking at what they were doing.”
Moran seized his opportunity, linking with Wigan’s dual-code international Peter Williams to sell his padding into union clubs. “I met Peter at Robin Park one day. He said, ‘Come and see me at Orrell rugby union’,” he recalls.
“So I went up, 11am on Tuesday, I was there a few minutes early and he walked through the door and he said, ‘You might have caught me at a good time, I’ve just been sacked’.
“He had a club car, and he said, ‘We’re going around every club’.
“He knew every head coach – we went to Bath, Newcastle, Northampton. From then it went to the British
Lions in ‘97, which was a different world.”
A fax confirming the Lions’ order for their tour of South Africa is framed, and hangs on the wall of Moran’s modest office at their headquarters on Makerfield Way, in Ince.
“After ‘97 we got agents very easily,” said Moran, who owns the company with his wife, Rachael.
As shoulder pads faded out of fashion, Optimum stretched out into other equipment such as headgear, balls and boots, as well as into other sports.
During lockdown, their online sales boomed, and they now sell around 10,000 mail order items a week.
“We sell 50,000 baseball bats a year,” said Moran. “And as many footballs. But I’d say 75 per cent of what we do is still rugby.”
Today, their products are made in their factories in China and Pakistan, but Wigan remains their HQ with 15 staff, including three designers.
They have recently been joined by rugby league royalty, with England legend Adrian Morley added to their team as a part-time brand ambassador to help promote their Optimum-produced kits.
“Pete wanted more of a presence in amateur rugby league and I’m enjoying engaging in that world again,” said Morley.
“For a lot of them it’s about pounds and pence and we’ve got inexpensive, quality products and I’m delighted to put my name to it.”
Moran, 53, even has hopes of manufacturing kits for professional teams down the track but, either way, he can look back with immense satisfaction on Optimum’s success over the last 25 years.
“When I started the company, I wanted to be a PE teacher, and I thought, ‘If it doesn’t happen I’ll go into that’,” he said.
“It’s obviously worked out well but I’m not going to change – I still come to work on my bike.
“Money isn’t a driver and I’m not into the self-promotion, the awards, all of that.
“It is nice when you see the logo on TV. But the best accolade was probably when one of my mates was in the middle of France, he’d been to a shop and seen my stuff hanging up! That was nice to hear.”