Editor’s column: Toronto cannot headline a decade of expansion fails

5th March 2020, Emerald Headingley, Leeds, England; Betfred Super League, Leeds Rhinos v Toronto Wolfpack : Dejected Sonny Bill Williams of Toronto Wolfpack

Eight clubs joined rugby league’s professional structure in the past decade, and Toronto threaten to be the latest to fall out of it again.

In 2010, there were 36 teams in the professional structure – for the 2020 campaign, this figure had risen by just one, to 37, despite the attempts to widen the sport’s footprint.

Clearly, whatever the strategy is, it’s not working.

All eight teams were placed in to League 1, with the latest new addition being Toronto in 2017. Prior to that, there was Toulouse (2016), Coventry (2014), Hemel, Gloucestershire, Oxford (all 2013), North Wales Crusaders (2012) and South Wales Scorpions (2010).

A fourth club was planned for 2013, but Northampton Rebels pulled out before even making it, despite them being chosen from an initial seven applicants.

Ralph Rimmer and Northampton Town FC chairman David Cardoza pictured in December 2011. Northampton would reveal a name and logo for their club but never got close to taking to the field for 2013 as planned.

North Wales were established from the ashes of the failed Crusaders Super League franchise, while their relocation from South Wales to Wrexham contributed to the creation of South Wales Scorpions, who have since twice rebranded, now known as West Wales Raiders.

Toulouse returned to League 1 for 2016, having previously played in the Championship from 2009 to 2011, while Coventry are arguably the success story of the decade as they continue to do their best to organically grow the game in the Midlands.

Oxford and Gloucestershire withdrew in 2017, with vague plans to merge to form Bristol never coming to fruition, while Hemel followed in 2018 – before selling their “licence” to Ottawa Aces, who plan to be the latest expansion attempt in 2021. The professional ranks also lost Blackpool Panthers back in 2011.

Ins and outs from the professional game since 2010

2010 ✅ South Wales Scorpions ❌ Blackpool Panthers
2011 ❌  Crusaders, ❌  Toulouse
2012 ✅ North Wales Crusaders
2013 ✅ Hemel Stags, ✅  Gloucestershire All Golds, ✅  Oxford
2014 ✅ Coventry Bears
2016 ✅ Toulouse
2017 ✅ Toronto ❌ Oxford, ❌  Gloucestershire All Golds
2018 ❌  Hemel Stags

Whether Toronto remain to fight another day is in the hands of the Super League executive – the lure of hypothetical commercial deals and new markets, played off against the threat to not pay current players their outstanding monies and the prospective new owner publicly saying it’s “Super League or bust”.

If Toronto are to remain in Super League on that basis, they are only relegation away from going out of business, which points back to the lack of strategy.

When Catalans were parachuted in back in 2006, they were given three years exemption from relegation – though this was effectively extended to eight years thanks to the advent of the licensing system.

How rugby league’s professional ranks looked at the start of the decade

2010 (36 teams)
Super League (14): Bradford, Castleford, Catalans, Crusaders, Harlequins, Huddersfield, Hull, Hull KR, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan
Championship (11): Barrow, Batley, Dewsbury, Featherstone, Halifax, Keighley, Leigh, Sheffield, Toulouse, Whitehaven, Widnes.
Championship 1 (11): Blackpool, Doncaster, Gateshead, Hunslet, London Skolars, Oldham, Rochdale, South Wales, Swinton, Workington, York
2020 (37 teams)
Super League (12): Castleford, Catalans, Huddersfield, Hull, Hull KR, Leeds, Salford, St Helens, Toronto, Wakefield, Warrington, Wigan.
Championship (14): Batley, Bradford, Dewsbury, Featherstone, Halifax, Leigh, London Broncos, Oldham, Sheffield, Swinton, Toulouse, Whitehaven, Widnes, York
League 1 (11): Barrow, Coventry, Doncaster, Hunslet, Keighley, London Skolars, Newcastle, North Wales, Rochdale, West Wales, Workington

Ploughing on with the inclusion of Ottawa as if the current system of doing things has been a resounding success seems to point to yet another rocky road.

Maybe the learning ought to be that elite (particularly overseas) expansion teams need to go straight in to Super League, with protection from relegation.

Ottawa Aces are already building their squad for the 2021 season.

Those wanting to grow organically, as per Coventry, ought to be able to do that without an over-spending behemoth blowing them away each year.

For a sport apparently so obsessed with expansion, rugby league doesn’t seem to get very far. 12 teams were in Super League back in 1996, and here we are in 2020 with the same number (maybe even less if Toronto aren’t given another run).

The way to change that is to actually have a robust strategy to expansion and actually expand when teams want to join, and not just palm them off for a few years playing against part-time sides on an uneven playing field.

11 Comments

  1. Absolutely correct, (viable properly vetted) expansion teams need to go straight in to Super League, with protection from relegation. It makes no sense to force new teams to go into the bottom tier for several years of playing part time teams.

    To give investments in expansion teams the best chance of success the (little bit of) glamour that Super League has to offer is essential. At the same time, relegation needs to be retained and the salary cap removed (or at least substantially raised) in order to purge SL of its non-viable teams.

    Only then would rugby league in the northern hemisphere any have any chance of fulfilling its potential, or the way things are going, surviving as a professional sport.

  2. Parachuting New Ventures into Super League will not work. Protection from relegation, the jeopardy of it, kills sport. It is only through steady organic growth that a devoted following can be obtained. This is also fairer to the existing non Super League Clubs

  3. Unlikely any new team will be good enough to go into super league AND survive. Maybe straight into championship, if league one compensated, and go from there. Only into super league if number of teams expanded, 12 is far to few.

  4. Finally somebody is talking sense. I live in Vancouver and have travelled to Toronto and the UK several times to watch the Wolfpack. There is massive potential in Canada for the sport we love but teams must be given a fighting chance. You cannot let teams spend millions of dollars only to have the spectre of relegation hanging over them before they can get established. If the sport is to thrive in today’s environment teams have to be well funded and have the ability to draw big crowds and sponsorship money. You only need to look at other professional sports to understand this concept. Rugby League will die a slow death if radical changes are not made. This will not be popular with some people but Super League needs to be 14 teams that have the resources and markets that can sustain them. Relegation needs to be abolished as it will only hinder major investment. Super League can be expanded into new markets as long as the market potential is big enough, clubs are well funded, no salary caps and no fear of relegation. Even existing clubs like Toulouse, London, Newcastle and Bradford could attract new investors and sponsors If the risks of short term failure were taken away from them. Time to think outside the box and make our sport an international powerhouse!

    • Totally agree. To say that “no relegation” doesn’t work is without founding. All North American leagues work this way and franchise values grow expedentially. No Relegation attracts major investors and could help big market teams in lower divisions to compete in SL. This would allow teams with deep pocket owners to attract & develop better players.

    • Why don’t Canada form there own teams first and see where it can go from there .to put teams in the super league will fail .ie not enough good players to compete the best go to Australia as for t.v coverage rugby league is only a stop gap when they have nothing better to show

      • Because this is a top down culture here, growth comes from pro teams. Not enough people know about RL yet in Canada (or the US) to have a fully-funded professional competition and nobody cares about amateur ones (USARL has existed for years, as have amateur teams in Canada, zero interest from fans as both are amateur setups). North America will need to piggyback off the RFL/SL infrastructure for a while and then maybe 20 years down the road potentially branch off into our own league.

  5. Rugby League in this country has been at an existential crossroads for a number of years and there are those who say the game has been treading water for 25/30 years. The Toronto project may well turn out to be another sideshow along the way. I think they are doomed to fail. But, having admitted them into Super League we have to allow them more time. It is too soon to pull the plug. Would you cast aside a small child as it was learning to walk? No a child needs help and encouragement as it takes it’s first faltering steps. I wouldn’t impose any penalties either as to do so would just place obstacles in their way. I would though impose a requirement for a substantial bond. And yes, the game does lack an expansion strategy.

  6. Where do the new teams get their players? Toronto for example, most of the players with a couple of exceptions are journeymen, Toronto were good in the Championship but woefully exposed in SL, there just aren’t enough players of quality to select from. How many years does it take for new clubs in non playing area’s to develop a root and branch system? Surely the proposal of no relegation weakens our own heartland teams, develop and encourage the area’s where the game is played and maybe the pool of players could then help and support new teams.

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