Over the weekend, news has emerged that Eric Perez, owner of the first transatlantic sports team Toronto Wolfpack, is seriously looking into the possibility of launching two more American rugby league teams with the intention of getting them into Super League. According to the BBC, he is in advanced talks with professional teams, believed to be in Hamilton and Boston, and is lining up negotiations with the RFL over the next few weeks. The question is: what does this mean for rugby league in this country?
Well, firstly, nobody knows just how successful Toronto Wolfpack will be. Yes, they breezed the third tier but that was widely expected due to their budget and pulling power – indeed, the only league match they lost in 2017 was away to York City Knights in the summer. Surely their success, and therefore the justification of further North American teams, can only be measured once they have had a year or two in the top flight of the game. The crowds might drop, interest might wane and they might not last in the top flight – I understand the interest of getting more American teams into the sport but, at the moment, there isn’t really a justification for it.
Secondly, what does the introduction of further expansion clubs mean for those in the British rugby league heartlands? Toronto Wolfpack were told to start in the third tier and work their way up the system which, while totally understandable, reasonable and proper, leaves an uneven playing field for those in that division; what would Whitehaven, Hunslet and York have thought knowing that one of the two promotion places was pretty much guaranteed to go to the Canadians? These are teams who need every penny they get and teams who promotion, just up to the second tier, can make a world of difference to their situations and would be huge for. Not so for Toronto who viewed it as just another step to Super League. It was, indeed, the second season in a row where a vastly superior team was introduced into the third tier after Toulouse Olympique were entered into the division in 2016, again pretty much guaranteed promotion. These problems will continue next season in the Kingstone Press Championship and, if both Toronto and Toulouse were to reach the Middle 8s, could affect livelihoods.
Sheffield Eagles’ boss Mark Aston voiced concern and anger over the situation whereby, in order to play in an away match to Toulouse in the Middle 8s recently, winger Ben Blackmore actually had to quit his job in order to play in the match – how is this fair? The short notice nature of the Super 8s competitions works fine for all of the British based clubs but days off work need to be taken to travel abroad for matches and, in 2016, York City Knights had to take on Toulouse with only 12 men as they were the only players who could get the time off work to play, giving Toulouse and Toronto huge advantages especially when playing part-time teams. Something, and I don’t know what, needs to be put in place to support part-time teams in this regard but it seems the RFL isn’t overly bothered.
I can’t see Super League teams willing to continue Toronto’s system for playing home and away matches if they were to reach Super League, either. In 2017, they would play four games at home in Canada and then four games away in the UK. Fair enough, one would think, as it removes jet lag and would have health advantages. But does it give them an unfair advantage? Yes, it does, as they are able to build up a head of steam with consecutive home matches which gives them the opportunity to hit form and get their wins and points on the board while fully fit against teams who, more than likely, will be feeling the effects of jet lag.
In addition to this, if further expansion teams are added to the British rugby league system, I can’t see the current format of 12 teams in the top flight being sufficient. Should expansion come at the expense of the clubs in the heartlands? No, it shouldn’t. Canadian, American and French teams are, in my opinion, more than welcome in the system but I don’t feel that they should be in Super League at the expense of teams like Wakefield, Widnes or Salford – teams who have the history and heritage of the game in the UK while not being the bigger names in the competition. Those sorts of teams may well be under threat to expansion teams in the Super League unless the league itself was to expand to 14 or possibly 16 teams.
I am all for expanding the game but, at the moment, I don’t think there is much justification for further North American teams in the system until Toronto’s success is fairly judged and, hopefully, if further expansion does occur it is not to the detriment of the heartland teams in the North of England.