- World’s first transatlantic sports team moves up to English rugby league’s top flight
- Majority owner David Argyle has sustained major losses due to start-up costs
- Entry into North American market expected to reap rewards for club and league
It’s not for the faint of heart,” declares Bob Hunter, Toronto Wolfpack’s chairman and interim chief executive, of the rugby league team’s groundbreaking move to become the world’s first transatlantic sports franchise. “There is a fairly big investment up front and it’s going to take time [to pay off].”
Toronto’s investment in joining the English rugby league pyramid since 2017 has indeed been significant thus far, with its ownership group led by Australian mining investor David Argyle continuing to make financial losses due to the widespread start-up costs involved.
However, it is hoped that the Canadian-based side’s recent promotion to the top-flight Betfred Super League next season will lead to major financial rewards for both team and league in the long-term.
The Wolfpack is the brainchild of Eric Perez, the team’s founder and former chief executive, who first looked to bring a team from Toronto into the Rugby Football League (RFL) system in 2014. Perez was confident that the move would help grow the sport by opening it up new markets outside of the heartlands of Australia, New Zealand and parts of England and France.
The RFL already had two foreign-based teams: the Perpignan-based Catalans Dragons joined the Super League in 2006, while Toulouse Olympique have mostly played in the English lower leagues since 2009.
Admitting a team from the other side of the Atlantic proved far more controversial prospect, however, with concerns being raised over the costs for items such as overseas travel, game-scheduling, broadcasting, and visas for players. But after two years of campaigning, Toronto was unanimously admitted by the RFL clubs into the third-tier Kingstone Press League One in 2017.
After gaining immediate promotion to the Betfred Championship, Toronto secured a move up to Super League at the second attempt in October when they defeated Featherstone Rovers 24-6 in the so-called “Million Pound Game” in front of a record 9,974 crowd at Lamport Stadium in Toronto.
“Going back the origins of the sport we have sought to do things differently. We are quite a pioneering sport and that pioneering spirit is something that has been the reason for our development over the years,” RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer tells SportBusiness.
“It was an experiment [to let Toronto into the league]. It was a leap of faith but the clubs need credit for bringing them to life and supporting them in their journey and I think everyone has benefited from that on the way. They have been a breath of fresh air… and they bring a great deal. There are markets in North America that rugby league and the Super League did not have access to and the Wolfpack provided possibly a way into those.”
Significant start-up costs
Establishing a transatlantic team has, understandably, proven far from straightforward.
Toronto has had to set up two bases: one in the Canadian city, where Toronto plays its home games, and another in Northern England, where the team plays the vast majority of its away games. It is also where the players and coaches live with their families.
Toronto has rented since 2017 the city-owned Lamport Stadium, which also serves as the practice facility for Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and the home of the Canadian rugby league team. The team has signed a one-year lease extension for 2020 and is in talks with the city about a long-term deal.
As part of the move up to Super League, the team will pay for a number of improvements to the facility over the next two to three years. This includes improving the locker rooms for the home and away teams, installing a video board, and upgrading the bathrooms and concessions stands.
The team must also accommodate its players and staff when they come to Toronto. They stay in the residences at George Brown College that were used to house athletes for the 2015 Pan Am Games. For the past three years, Toronto has also paid to accommodate visiting teams at the city’s York University, but this agreement will not continue in Super League.
A practice facility is also required in England. Next year, the team will train at Hopwood Hall College in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, where the club’s UK-based staff will be based. Additional front office staff will need to be hired in both Toronto and England to cope with the increased demands.
As part of the agreement to join the RFL, Toronto agreed to pay for its own flights to and from England (and France) and those of opposition teams as well. This deal will continue in Super League for the foreseeable future. These costs are covered by a three-year sponsorship deal with local airline Air Transat, which was signed in 2017 and is currently being renegotiated.
In an attempt to expand and engage its fanbase, Toronto vowed to pay the production costs of all its home games in order for them to be broadcast on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, as well as being distributed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. It is up for discussion whether this will continue in Super League, according to Hunter.
To try to compete at a higher level, Toronto will also invest more in player salaries, with the intent to pay the Super League salary cap level of £2.1m ($2.7m) in 2020. A big-name player is expected, with New Zealand dual-code international Sonny Bill Williams reportedly interested in joining the Super League newcomers.
Search for Sky broadcast revenues
With all these costs, Toronto is currently not making a profit but, according to Hunter, the team plans to be in the black within two-to-three years. Until then, Argyle has agreed to cover all losses, believing that the estimated £8m investment to date will ultimately pay off.
Next season, however, Toronto will not share in Sky Sports broadcast revenues in the UK, which at around £2m would cover the team’s salary cap. Instead, the central distribution will be shared among the other 11 clubs.
“When we came into the [RFL] three years ago at the League One level, the ownership group at the time decided that it didn’t want any hindrance of being allowed to come in so they agreed to no [central] distribution for the first three years of participation,” Hunter tells SportBusiness. “We [also] agreed to that to get into the Super League because there was a fairly tight time schedule. It’s open for discussion when we finally get in front of all the owners.”
Until Toronto shares in league-wide broadcast revenues, the team’s front office will “just have to work harder…and lessen the impact of not participating”, Hunter says.
The team is expecting more sponsors to align with the team and for current partners to pay more for the association now that Toronto has a bigger reach in Super League. Toronto is specifically looking for British and Canadian companies who have business on both sides of the Atlantic to become commercial partners.
Challenge to grow a local fanbase
Securing a fanbase for a non-native sport in Canada has been a challenge, Hunter admits. The team has successfully appealed to British expats, citizens with British heritage, and members of local rugby clubs. But numerous free tickets have also been given away in the past three seasons in order to try to capture the imagination of the local population.
“I think once we get people in the stadium, we’ll get a good fanbase. Winning has been a big part of the formula. We saw this right at the end of the season and certainly in the playoffs,” Hunter says.
Toronto hopes to end the free-ticket strategy next season while individual- and season-ticket prices will largely stay the same. “We want to keep it very family-friendly and reasonable. We’re attracting a whole new audience. We want to make sure that there are no barriers to helping people sample this new sports product,” Hunter says.
Being a transatlantic team also requires a significant effort to keep Canadian fans engaged while the team is playing in England. To do this, the team puts on watch parties and invests significantly in social media content. “We use any and every medium,” says Hunter. “It’s difficult and more challenging and more expensive but at the end of the day we have to go that extra mile to get that exposure.”
Toronto will also look to create a fanbase among the Canadian population in England. Due to the inclement weather in Toronto during winter, the team will not play at Lamport Stadium until mid-April next year. Three home games before that will be played within the UK, as well as a number of away games.
The team is currently in discussions with a number of venues over these relocated home games. It is highly likely that some will be in London, with 65,000 of the approximate 85,000-strong Canadian population in the UK living in the English capital.
Meanwhile, Hunter is expecting approximately 1,000 visiting fans for every home game in Canada next season. More than 350 Featherstone fans came to Toronto for the Million Pound Game. “It’s great for the local tourism economy. It’s quite a big deal,” Hunter says.
Setting a transatlantic precedent
In its attempts to get the club up and running, Toronto has suffered some internal growing pains as well.
Most seriously, majority-owner Argyle in early June essentially fired himself from his roles as chairman and chief executive over racist comments he made to Swinton player Jose Kenga. Two months later former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment executive Hunter stepped into the roles.
In December 2018, the team was late in paying its players wages. There have also been issues in regards to payment of suppliers. Toronto faces a lawsuit from Alberta’s iLink Media Group, which alleges it is owed more than C$125,000 (€86,000/$95,000) in unpaid bills from 2018 TV broadcast work. Meanwhile, two regular-season home games last season were not televised in order to cut costs.
There have been visa issues as well. Toronto’s Australian forward Darcy Lussick was forced to miss an away game earlier this summer after he was denied entry into England by the UK Border Agency following a trip to mainland Europe.
On top of this, Toronto has another rugby team to compete with for fans and attention: Major League Rugby’s Toronto Arrows, which joined the North American professional rugby union competition in 2019. Only time will tell if Toronto is big enough for two professional rugby teams, says Hunter.
Yet despite all the costs and challenges, Toronto has set a template for others to follow. Indeed, it is possible that there could be three North American teams in Super League within the next decade.
Earlier this year, an ownership group in Ottawa was given the green light by the RFL to purchase the Hemel Stags and relocate the team to Canada. The Ottawa team is expected to enter League One in 2021. Meanwhile, a consortium in the New York City area was given provisional approval to enter a team into League One, though more work needs to be done to gain an entry date.
According to Perez, Montreal and Vancouver are also looking to join the RFL in the future, while there have been expressions of interest from other European cities.
“The Wolfpack’s inclusion in the competitions has undoubtedly opened up new markets,” Rimmer added. “Their success in developing crowds and navigating their way through the competitions has awakened interest in locations further afield.”