Mad Monday: What next for Toronto and rugby league?

5th March 2020, Emerald Headingley, Leeds, England; Betfred Super League, Leeds Rhinos v Toronto Wolfpack : Sonny Bill Williams and Hakim Miloudi of Toronto Wolfpack poses for a fan picture.

I started the day wanting to speak to Simon Woolford to ask if Huddersfield’s remarkable away form at the start of 2020 might be a good omen going in to the Super League re-start, given they’ll have a stretch of games away at “neutral” venues (their ‘home’ game against Leeds, being played at neutral Headingley, naturally).

It ended considerably later than planned after an extraordinary evening that included an almost apologetic confirmation from the RFL that the Championship and League 1 seasons had ended, an announcement that was rushed out so not to clash with this morning’s World Cup fixture reveal.

You would have forgiven World Cup organisers for wanting to call the whole reveal off, with it completely overshadowed by events on a Mad Monday triggered by Toronto’s sensational withdrawal from Super League for 2020 that could call in to question the entire future of the game.

That may well be melodramatic, and the droves of fans threatening to turn away from the game for a variety of reasons – the lack of support for Toronto, support for Toronto, Leigh and Featherstone spending a load of money and not being allowed to get promoted, ending the season early etc – may well sleep on it and think differently.

But clearly, rugby league has created a rift within itself that maybe it will never heal.

 

Toronto’s withdrawal from Super League in 2020 will take some unravelling.

The unprecedented global pandemic clearly leaves a huge hole in their numbers and you cannot blame them for taking their ball home after all, they had nothing to gain from pandering to the demands of Sky Sports in the name of minimising the loss of broadcast revenue – because they hadn’t seen, nor were they due, a penny of it.

But you cannot ignore the pre-pandemic worries over late wage payments and visa issues that have been well documented, and well investigated, elsewhere.

The negative headlines and the drama it’s created may well be a wake up call.

The feasibility and logistics of the Toronto concept have never added up, particularly in the context that the NFL is still yet to base a franchise in the UK despite more than a decade of regular sell-outs at Wembley.

 

Attracting fans doesn’t appear to be a problem for the Wolfpack, as opposed to some of their expansionist predecessors, and the rugby league family (if that’s even a thing anymore) must sympathise with those Canadian fans who have fallen in love with a new sport over the past few years and have had it taken away from them in 2020.

We may never find out whether those hypothetical broadcast and commercial deals thanks to having a team in North America would come to fruition.

Even if they didn’t, it’s unlikely it would have been the fault of Toronto, but instead of the environment they found themselves in.

As with most expansion attempts, they appear to threaten those that already exist, meaning those that exist do everything in their power to protect themselves – and given the amount of power Super League clubs have over the game, that’s their biggest strength.

Why rugby league hasn’t been able to find a formula where it expands without alienating those it’s already got remains a mystery.

What’s happening right now is that it’s losing people at both ends – long-suffering fans that have got fed up with how the game is governed, and new fans who are frustrated at the lack of support their hindered expansion side is getting.

The answer as to why rugby league doesn’t attract more broadcast and commercial revenue is more obvious than you might think. Its main selling point, the on-field product, is secondary to the endless search for validation from the wider world and a golden ticket to the main stream.

Toronto captain Josh McCrone was critical at the lack of support the Wolfpack had received for their efforts in growing the game – the trouble is, that the majority of clubs are living hand to mouth, and so haven’t got the wherewithal or the resources to support alternative ventures which, with all the will in the world, may or may not succeed.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the expansion rainbow. Or at least, not one that can be seen enough by the current clubs to want to risk what they’ve already got – which in comparison to other minor sports in the UK, is actually pretty good (until 2021, at least). It’s all well and good saying the future of the game lies in the big cities, the trouble is, no one can see the path that gets us there.

Maybe it’s time the weight of expansion was absolved from Super League and a new NRL Europe was forged with a clear plan and criteria, away from the self-serving interests of those protecting their existing businesses.

Clearly, the situation whereby Toronto weren’t given central funding should never be allowed to happen again. All clubs should be equal. Perhaps in hindsight, the other clubs would have relinquished some monies that were reportedly asked for by the Wolfpack to help them through this situation. After all, it was thanks to the Wolfpack not being given central funding that all the other clubs received an extra £150k or so each in their own distribution.

It’s now turned their participation in 2021 in to a no win situation. If they line up back in Super League as if nothing has happened – which is surely most likely given no promotion would mean the top flight would have to run with 11-teams otherwise – there will be calls for sanction.

If they go back to the Championship, there will no doubt be clubs frustrated at what they would rightly see as a pretty big hurdle to their own Super League ambitions.

And if they don’t line up at all, then what a sorry end to this story (although as one tweeter did point out, not necessarily the end of rugby league in Canada – there are other clubs there too, even before Ottawa Aces).

But it all boils down to this – does anybody truly believe that in its current guise, Toronto or not, that Super League or rugby league can expand to become the commercial sporting behemoth it seemingly wants to be without significant changes to how it is run?

10 Comments

  1. They have been given every chance and want even more get shut and concentrate on our own clubs championship and division 1 included

  2. This is what should happen to Toronto,(1) kicked out of Super League (2) no entry into the championship (3) let them back into Div 1 if the other clubs vote they can join . Fined and have the books look at by a independent financial expert regularly. As if said before you should allow hard working clubs to take their spot in super league , featherstone or London for a starters

  3. There no point in writing a balanced piece for the prejudiced drama queen fans of RL.

    The overblown sense of injustice of a five year old can linger for a life time.

    The over reaction to the tip of the iceberg that is the only bit they’re interested in will never reflect the effect of losing this opportunity.

    Again!

  4. What is it with our fans and media of Rugby League constantly putting our sport down and all doom and gloom…. Be proud of our sport it’s one of the worlds best kept secrets but in parts of the world it’s the greatest game there is…. even if Toronto leave Super League completely – just look at the new fans and how Rugby League has taken pockets of Canada by storm – they regularly get 9,000 – 10,000 fans and was surely going build on that…. personally I’d like to see these new North American clubs such as Toronto, New York, Ottawa and maybe a few more create their own Super League – North American Conference and the winners of the North America Conference quality for the Super League Play-Offs for a chance to be the Super League Champions… it’s clear that a trans-Atlantic team is very challenging so why not create a vision to having an American conference and the NA teams compete in the Challenge Cup etc? Only a thought and vision for the future?

  5. Just like to point out to people on here I’ve been involved in the developement of rugby league , having played in the southern conference, been involved in the development of the sport in the armed forces and last but least in the development of the Scotland national side and not one side was run in the amateur way that Toronto has been run . In the forces rugby league was not a recognised sport and the rah rah boys didn’t like us playing the game . So there’s no excuses for the way Toronto have been acting in the past few , if you want the game to grow get rid of the wood and replace it . So I’m for a featherstone V London playoff game winner gets the Toronto’s place

  6. Article: “Clearly, the situation whereby Toronto weren’t given central funding should never be allowed to happen again. All clubs should be equal.”

    This statement doesn’t even make sense. You can’t accept a team into a league if all it does is take money out without putting money in. That does not make economic sense.

    If Toronto came in through something like a $30 million USD expansion fee (like in North America sports), then it would make sense and they should rightly be subsidized on a yearly basis. But that’s not what Toronto Wolfpack did. This would be nothing but corruption and ineptitude for them to get UK TV revenue. It’s the UK clubs that negotiated the UK TV deal and its the UK TV channel and audiences that fund that UK TV revenue that makes up “central funding”.

    Why would any of the teams vote to allowing an expansion team if all that expansion team is take money out? They wouldn’t have been allowed entry in the first place. Toronto Wolfpack came in with the agreement that they would get exclusive rights to North America TV, and they failed to do that on their own.

    When TWP brings North America TV revenue to the table—the shared table—then the UK and North America sides can agree to split the revenue. TWP can’t siphon money out without either paying a hefty expansion fee or bringing in revenue. How many times must this be repeated? If you or anyone thinks TWP should get free money then you cut the cheques.

    TWP spent $15 million USD across three years, with multiple title wins along the way. North American sports teams spend that much or more just to gain entry into a league or in their first year alone.

    I hope this is a P.R. and finance lesson for Super League and the RFL. If other teams want to come in they should be made to pay a hefty expansion fee. That is a means test to ensure they are financially viable and have longevity prospect and that you wont have a pathetic coach and shills complaining about not getting “central funding” and special exemptions. This is professional sports, not a fantasy league.

    • So if, say, York City Knights make it to Super League – would they not be entitled to the Sky TV money because they weren’t in Super League when the TV deal was negotiated?

      • @James Gorden 1. They are a UK club and their UK fans make up the UK TV audience from where the revenue is earned.
        2. Up to the other clubs to vote whether they want them to get a piece of their pie. They negotiated the deal and they know what terms are in the paperwork.

  7. Excellent article that says it all. Super League is anything but super and at best mediocre. Tony Smith once advocated a 10 team elite league, with reduced number of games this improving quality. I would adopt this with a second league (SL1) of 10 teams. These 20 teams would provide 2 ambitious divisions with equally shared funding. SKY would have a bigger pool of matches to show and there would be more exposure of some excellent championship teams. Only when the elite league has proven it’s quality should expansion be considered.

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