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“The math just kept getting worse” | Why Toronto Wolfpack pulled plug on Super League season

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Canadian rugby league team anxiously awaits fate after dramatically withdrawing from campaign
  • Transatlantic team expecting to be demoted to the second-tier RFL Championship for 2021
  • Late withdrawal of expected financial investment proved final straw for cash-strapped club

A landmark season which began with such promise has ended in complete disaster after Toronto Wolfpack withdrew from the 2020 Betfred Super League season less than two weeks before the scheduled restart of the campaign.

After the world’s first transatlantic sports team secured promotion to English rugby league’s top flight late last year, the Canada-based franchise made a major splash in the global game by bringing in cross-code rugby international Sonny Bill Williams on a two-year contract worth around £5m ($6.4m).

However, things quickly turned sour on and off the field as Toronto lost its first six league matches, firmly rooting the team to the bottom of the table and raising the spectre of immediate relegation.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic provided another body blow as the loss-making Toronto – which does not share in Sky Sports broadcast revenues – suffered major cash flow issues after being deprived of its ability to stage up to 11 planned home games at Lamport Stadium in Toronto, Canada, which are a major revenue source for the team.

Players and staff were paid late on multiple occasions, severely reducing morale, while a request for a six-figure loan from Super League was reportedly rejected. The team was also not eligible for loans from the British Government designed to help companies through the health crisis, unlike its England-based counterparts.

“Enough’s enough,” one Toronto player told the i newspaper while speaking on anonymity. “I can’t remember the last time we got paid on time. We haven’t been paid for the last month. The thing is the stress that it puts on the team and people in that organisation is madness. They don’t give a s**t. There’s a lot of people owed money. It’s just a disaster. I don’t think people understand the mental stress it puts on people. Some of the players with kids, mortgages, bills – I’m worried. It’s crazy…I can’t see that club being there in two years.”

Financial and logistical issues came to a head in the past fortnight. Last week, Toronto’s ability to finish the Super League campaign was placed under major doubt after it emerged that visas for seven overseas players, including Williams, were due to expire at the end of the month, forcing the stars to prematurely leave the United Kingdom.

The team’s place in the resumed season was seemingly confirmed after it was announced all games would be played in England, rather than in Toronto. However, over the weekend, planned investment into the team – which would have provided much-needed financial capital – fell through unexpectedly.

This led the Toronto to make the dramatic decision to withdraw from Super League, just two weeks before the season was due to restart and after the television schedule had been announced.

Sonny Bill Willams (Credit: Getty Images)

Toronto has said it “fully intends” to field a team in the 2021 season. However, it is understood that Super League executives are extremely upset over the major disruption to its plans in the coming weeks and months.

It is now highly unlikely that Toronto will play in the top flight next season even though promotion and relegation has been scrapped this year. This means the team will have to apply to the Rugby Football League for a place in the second-tier Championship or even third-tier League One.

In a joint statement, the Super League and RFL said they were “very disappointed to learn that Toronto Wolfpack will not be able to fulfil their obligations to Super League 2020”. The statement added: “The club’s decision is especially disappointing given the imminent restart of the season. A discussion around the longer term consequences and the future of the Wolfpack in Super League will commence shortly.”

The series of financial setbacks have even placed some some doubts as to whether Toronto will be able to survive in the long term. “It could be that we don’t have a spot [anywhere] in 2021,” Toronto majority owner David Argyle told the i newspaper.

SportBusiness spoke to Toronto chairman and chief executive Bob Hunter over the team’s decision to withdraw from Super League and the effects this will have on the club going forward.

What is the mood of everyone at the club right now?

Extremely disappointed. We had been hoping and planning on some new investment and that unfortunately was the icing on the cake – that didn’t happen and we had been working on that for two or three weeks. When that didn’t happen, which was late Friday night, we came to the conclusion over the weekend that we couldn’t proceed. And it was very positive right up until the last minute and it would have supported the club for the next couple of months. The expenses were just too costly and our current ownership didn’t feel that it was worthwhile.

What did you do to try to get the Super League and RFL help you through this situation?

We’ve always known that we don’t participate in television revenue but these are extraordinary times. So we approached the league as to whether they would be able to provide us with a loan to try to support expenses. They had yet to say no but that loan was only covering some small issues, it wasn’t what we needed overall to continue to manage all the expenses of the club.

Do you think your situation would be different if Toronto was able to participate in TV revenues?

Significantly different. It’s a big number. We were never happy about it but we understood, it was part of the deal going into 2020.

Can you confirm reports that players were paid late?

We missed payroll maybe three times this season. Aside from this being cash flow issues, our owner is looking to reduce his equity by bringing in new partners. When new partners committed that they were coming in, the transactions did not always happen as they would accordingly.

(Credit: Getty Images)

What has been the general financial impact of Covid-19 on the club?

The 11 home games that we would have hosted, should there have been no Covid, are a major source of our revenue. The problems began with none of those home games [being played] yet we had to run a professional team. The math just kept getting worse. It’s like all major professional sports, everyone is going to have a very tough, challenging year. We have one owner and when there are shortfalls, he has to pick that up himself and it’s a very tough situation.

How would you rate Toronto’s chances of playing in the Super League next season?

It’s the big question. They have to make the decisions that they have to make. I would be the first to admit that we put them in a very tough situation 13 days from playing. I don’t know [the answer] but we understand – we assume that there are consequences. The other 11 teams are in equally difficult scenarios, the only difference is they will get television revenue and that helps foot the bill.

With the right talent pool and with good coaching and with our fan support, we can make a go of it if we’re allowed in the Championship. If we are demoted then we will work very hard and diligently to get back up. But we have to prove our value to the RFL. We are hoping that should Super League put us into default – which they can according to the agreement – that possibly the RFL will let us back into the Championship.

Do you think Sonny Bill Williams will ever play for the team again?

Sonny is a professional athlete and he is under contract with us through next season. I do believe he will [play for us again] and we will look to fulfill our side of the contract and we assume that he is in the same scenario.

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