LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Sonny Bill Williams looks on next to Brian McDermott, Head Coach of Toronto Wolfpack during a press conference where he is unveiled as a new signing for Toronto Wolfpack at Emirates Stadium on November 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Rugby League has for decades had ambitions to break into the North American sports market. Administrators and entrepreneurs both Knowing the potential financial windfall it could bring. Or so we had thought. Earlier this month the Toronto Wolfpack, the first North American professional Rugby League team, were cast out of Super League for the 2021 season.

The Wolfpack, the first trans-Atlantic sporting franchise, had been seen to be a great success after climbing the ranks of English lower-tier competitions into the Super League within four years.

Sadly for all associated the Wolfpack pulled out of Super League in their debut season the year due to financial issues of their owner who’s business model it now turns out to have been less robust than had been flaunted by the big-money signing of SBW. 

Players and staff went without pay and are still owed money from the original ownership group headed by Australian Businessman David Argyle. Reasons for the financial calamity had been blamed on COVID-19, other reasons being put forward a flawed business model and lack of original scrutiny on behalf of Super League.

The lack of financial input or support by Super League as the Wolfpack did not receive central funding of £1.8 million the other 11 clubs are granted annually was most certainly the death notice when Covid 19 shut down the competition.

Based on the fact that players and staff were left unpaid and unlikely to recoup any money owed the decision to boot Toronto out of Super League would be a justified decision.

However, a new ownership group wanted to pick up the pieces and take on the financial responsibility of paying the players and staff left out of pocket by its predecessor and be allowed back into Super League 2021.

The new ownership group is headed up by Canadian businessman Carlo Livolsi. His business background is within the beauty industry and for the past 18 years has products sold in Australia through Woolworths and Boots in the UK.

He was asked by Super League administration to present a business model and a transparent financial plan to be reviewed by all stakeholders including the 11 participating clubs. However, the fate of the new consortium would be in the hands of those 11 clubs and the Rugby Football League (RFL) the Governing body in England not the Super League administration.

While the application for re-entry was being inspected and discussed former players including Sonny Bill Williams on a multi-million multi-year deal and a group of loyal mad for it Rugby League fans in Canada and around the world waited anxiously for a decision.

Fans like Sher & Lil the unofficial Toronto Wolfpack marketing and promotion two lady team who more than anyone has spread the Rugby League gospel in Toronto with spectacular success.

They have a YouTube show and either in person or via social media platforms to educate and advocate as many Ontario residents they can get in front of. Their level of love for Rugby League is as real and passionate as the most ardent NRL or SL fan.

In the space of four years, the Wolfpack has gained a loyal following averaging 7882 fans a game (all lower tier games). Super League crowd average for 2019 all clubs combined was 8441.

Originally the Wolfpack fans were majorly ex-pat UK, Aussie and New Zealanders. Over time word of mouth and recognition in the local press due to the success of the team spread to grow homegrown fans.

These fans state the game day carnival atmosphere with beer tents and accessibility to their team and the excitement of the game won them over instantly. Toronto residents who are introduced to Rugby League loved it and continued to attend games and bring their family and friends with them.

The new consortium advised they would underwrite all costs and play all home games in the 2021 season in the UK due to Covid 19. Have said they disclosed all requirements to prove financial stability through a comprehensive business plan.

Unfortunately, these points were in my opinion ignored by the clubs who in fairness to themselves voted against Toronto to save their own short term financial survival.

The Super League administration gave their assessment of the validity of Wolfpack 2.0 and took the easy road by giving the responsibility of Toronto’s survival or demise to their competitors the other 11 clubs.

This is the equivalent of asking other fast food outlets in a food court they can vote for a McDonalds or a Krusty Burger to take the vacant outlet next to them.

With Toronto asking for central funding and the lack of away fans for Toronto games the decision was easy for the clubs voting 8-4 against the submission given the uncertainty of the financial climate during a pandemic.

St Helens, Leeds, Catalans and the RFL voted in favour of keeping Toronto seeing the potential of growing the game outside the small market of Northern England.

It is understandable why 8 clubs voted against Toronto’s inclusion. Part of the financial input the Wolfpack needed to survive short and long term was to be paid from the central funding as with the other 11 clubs.

It had been rumoured that £1 Million would be offered instead of the £1.8 Million the other clubs would receive. The Central funding is Primarily from the TV deal with Sky Sports. A new TV deal has been reported to be cut by £10 Million adding to the financial strain on the 8 clubs.

The other financial burden on existing clubs is lack of away fans that would attend games against Toronto. A traditional local team would be more profitable.

Tradition runs deep in the North of England and many fans are happy to see the back of the Canadian team to them they had no right to be in the competition in the first place.

The result was always going to be against Toronto once Super League gave the clubs the vote to decide their fate. Weak leadership and short-sighted ambitions on behalf of Super League, greed and lack of corporate governance and ambition by the clubs and over-ambitious grandiose vision but lack of real substance by the owners of the Wolfpack have condemned fans to be the biggest loser in what could and should be a success.

Robert Elstone Super League Chairmen has stated that an independent committee examined commercial opportunities for rugby league in Canada. The results were rather mind-boggling saying a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League.

Keep in mind Super League signed a commercial deal with Papa John’s Pizza not for any monetary value but paid in pizza, yes paid in Pizza. Their TV deal in the UK is said to be reducing by £10 Million. Super League sees the way forward to increase revenue is to add another team from the same shrinking market in Northern England.

Perhaps a corporate partnership with a bus company might be next to drive fans and teams around the small corridor the competition exists.

The criteria for the club to replace Toronto must have an average crowd figure of 2000 and stadium with a minimum capacity of 5000. If Super League is aiming for mediocrity, it has been successful.

I don’t have any skin in the game. I’m not an avid fan of the Super League so why does this bother me so much? The simple answer is I love Rugby League and think it has huge potential and also think the North American market can be, and should be, successful to open doors of expansion and revenue globally.

The groundwork has already been done. Toronto has a good base to build on. A dedicated fan base, TV and radio exposure with a known brand name. A second Canadian team Ottawa Aces will join the English lower tiers taking the same path the Wolfpack took when they joined in 2017.

A New York team will also join the Ottawa Aces on its journey through the lower tiers although COVID-19 restrictions may delay the start dates for both, unfortunately.

Perhaps when we get past COVID-19 and if Super League has a change of leadership that wants to be ambitious and brave they might find that North America adds a massive material incremental revenue to Super League.

For the fans like Sher & Lil and all the other League converts in Canada I truly hope it does. Until then lay back and think of England only, just like the Super League administration.