From afar it seems that Toronto Wolfpack are a Super League team in waiting; the world’s first transatlantic rugby league team has pulled off the recruitment of Super League and NRL players as it mounts a challenge for promotion to the top tier in just their second year of existence following from winning the third tier in their maiden campaign. They have an ambitious board including Eric Perez and David Argyle and their mere presence is an annoyance to many rugby league fans who feel that expansion is coming at the expense of developing the game further in the heartlands. However, coach Paul Rowley suggested recently that all was not well with the club.
The former Leigh Centurions coach commented that their pre-season training camp to Portugal was both disastrous and totally dysfunctional, leaving the camp behind where he felt they needed to be. Not only did injuries befall his team but the club also released big name forwards Ryan Bailey, Fuifui Moimoi and Dave Taylor for unspecified disciplinary reasons. Commenting on the 22nd of March, Rowley explained that “I feel like our season is just about getting under way, but we’re nowhere near where we want to be and that is 100 per cent due to the pre-season.” Despite those comments which suggested that the Wolfpack were struggling, they boasted four wins from their first six matches in the second tier with one further draw and loss. Their opening day victory over Leigh Centurions raised eyebrows and made many sit up and take Toronto very seriously.
Recently, Get ’em Onside spoke to some Wolfpack fans to get a supporters’ perspective on the make up of the club at the moment, their views at the moment and the perception of rugby league in Canada. The three people, Nicholas Mew, Scott Bond and John Gross, are all fans of the Toronto team and their views are rather interesting…
- In your opinion, what is the state of the club off the field? Is it well run?
Scott feels that the club are very fan orientated and shared a tale about the club’s owner: “I believe that the Toronto Wolfpack are an incredibly ran club who seem to focus more on the views of its fans then on the mighty buck. Through its existence, it has felt as though someone is always willing to listen to me and take notes from what I have had to say. Even to a point where I went for a pint before the game with my girlfriend and was asked to go and collect a pint that the owner had bought me. Like anyone else in the bar at that time I assumed it was the owner of Liberty Village Market Cafe who was rewarding my patronage. But as an older gentleman with an Aussie twang handed me a beer and said cheers mate I replied thank you and this is a very nice bar you have. He looked at me smiled and put his arm on my shoulder laughed and said no mate I’m the owner of the Wolfpack. I was floored by this and then he even asked me what could be done to improve the Wolfpack. I feel as though I am a part of a family.”
Nicholas, however, while being supportive of the club, acknowledged some of the difficulties the club has had and areas that it must improve on: “initially, I would have said ‘no’ in some areas and ‘yes’ in others [regarding the club being well run], but I have seen tremendous improvements in just the past few months. We have to keep in mind that this is a club that has started from nothing. It’s had to build an entire staff right from the ground up, and establish a tone or ethos. If you come into a long-standing business or company, you quickly sense how they do things, and adjust to fit in. Here they’ve had to decide ‘how they do things’, and it’s been a work in progress. I’ve actually found them to be very helpful, accessible, and willing to listen. Communication with fans and the media was disappointing during the off-season, but is the area that has seen incredible improvement recently. A few people have said that were it not for other supporters sharing what little they knew with each other on social media, they would have simply given up on the team and done something else with their time and money. Most importantly, the team has listened to supporter concerns, and has acted to improve. This is unusual for professional sports in Toronto.”
“I was one of those new supporters, who had never experienced rugby league until 2017, who could have walked away, yet I didn’t. Why? I have confidence that these are just growing pains, mistakes made by a young team finding its footing, and I am confident that the management is professional, will improve, and get things right.”
John believes that the fan experience at the game is superb: “The game experience has been excellent for fans, even though the stadium itself is spartan and well below the standard I would expect from a major league sports team. The team has been welcoming to fans; the event in December where the coach and owner were present in the team store to talk and answer questions is one example. Merchandise, however, has not been handled well. It was scarce, and the online store far below what they ought to have had. And this season we have been kept waiting far too long for the new jerseys and other merchandise, missing out on the opportunity for holiday sales in December, and then sliding the expected arrival date from January to March to “any day now”. The handling of information around the home schedule could have been much better. I think they got blindsided by others releasing information before the Wolfpack were ready to comment, in some cases before things were even finalised. The move of the Toulouse game to Magic Weekend is probably a great idea, but it came as a surprise to the fans here, and we don’t get anything out of it unless we attend Magic Weekend.” John, himself, has confirmed that he is attending Magic Weekend and hopes that other Canadians will travel as well. “I think in year one the focus was on the on-field product, and the team got by with a skeleton crew off the field. They have brought on new staff and are trying to get their house in order, but they are still behind on part of that agenda.”
- Are the team ready to compete in Super League if they get promoted again?
Scott feels that the team will have something to offer if they get to the top tier: “I believe that if the team get promoted they will be competitive in SL. I also think that I will not have any nails left at the end of the season due to biting them constantly. Rochdale recently [17-16 win] was a great example of that.”
Nicholas was cautious but agreed to a certain extent with Scott’s view: “Judging by the on-field product right now, I’d say no, but so much can change. Look at how different the squad is from last year, or even the start of this year. They also are still trying to gel as a team, and have gone through an incredible number of injuries. We can’t really answer this until closer to the end of the season, but I would hesitantly say yes. The team will be ready to compete in the Super League if they earn promotion because the team will make sure of it.
John was a bit more hesitant, partially due to the lack of Super League games he has seen – something he will no doubt be looking forward to rectifying in Newcastle next month. “I don’t know enough to say for sure, as I have only seen a handful of Super League games on TV. I know it’s a big jump. I think the team is good enough to contend for promotion. They have come through a bad rash of injuries (which affect every team to some extent) and the departure of 3 important players just before the season started [Fuifui Moimoi, Ryan Bailey and Dave Taylor]. I believe the ownership will do everything they can to put a competitive team on the field, but they need more depth to protect against injuries.
It should be noted that these answers were gathered before the likes of Gareth O’Brien and Chase Stanley signed up with the Wolfpack and Get ’em Onside believes that the pull of Toronto will see premier players joining the Canadians if they were to gain promotion to Super League.
- What is the appetite like for rugby league in Toronto and Canada? Will attendances grow?
John believes so: “The game is just about unknown here. When I talk about the team with friends and family, almost no one has heard of the team, and almost no one knows that there are 2 codes of rugby, or how rugby league differs from rugby union, which we played in high school. The current fan base, which came close to filling Lamport Stadium in the first season, is a mix of ex-pats from the UK and Australia, a small number of Canadian RL fans, and a lot of Canadian ‘rugby’ fans who start off confused at their first game and ask the ex-pat sitting next to them to explain the rules. I took a few friends and family members to games with me last season, and every one who came to a game told me they would want to come back for more. I am confident that as more sports fans here discover this sport, the crowds will grow, and the team will sell out some games this year. I think they have not yet begun to scratch the surface, and if the team continues to have success on the field and gets promoted to Super League, they could easily be drawing 20,000 fans per game within a few more years. Toronto is a fabulous sports city, and there is plenty of room for this team to grow and establish a strong following, as Toronto FC have done in recent years in soccer.
Nicholas is also convinced that the club could become huge in North America and be great for the sport as a whole: “The Wolfpack have not even scratched the surface of the consciousness of sports fans in Toronto, yet they’re already on the verge of a full house at Lamport Stadium. I’d be very, very surprised if one walked down the street in Toronto, asking if people knew about the Wolfpack, and 2% of the people had even heard of them. The potential for growth is simply astronomical. Once the name is known, the team advertises, and the brand is established, it will take off tremendously. It’s easy to understand, affordable for families to go to games, players are accessible, the atmosphere is so welcoming at home games, and it’s just a fun time. What’s not to like? People who go to the games will go back, and they’ll tell their friends and family. Last year was my first year. During the off-season I have personally invited close to 40 people to come this year, and shown the sport on television to far more than that. I fully expect most of those 40 will come.” Furthermore, he completely agrees with John’s sentiment that Canada is a sports-mad nation and emphasises that, with Toronto being one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, you can find almost every sport under the sun there and open-minded people who are willing to learn more to go with that.
If the view of these three fans is anything to go by then rugby league could be huge in Canada and Scott suggested a few ways to further boost its reputation: “Without a doubt I believe there is a market for RL in Toronto and Canada. We have to use the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors as a way of getting the Toronto Wolfpack name out there. I believe more marketing for the team would be beneficial and maybe commercials during Hockey Night in Canada. Probably the busiest viewing audience every Sat night in and around the Golden Horseshoe (area around Lake Ontario that encompasses Niagara, Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Scarborough, and Oshawa) if not the entire country. This sport has the potential to take over this country in the summer it just needs someone to take part time supporters of other summer sports to full time supporters of rugby league.
- Do you feel that Canadians will travel to the UK for matches?
UK based teams often take large swathes of fans to away fixtures on a weekly basis and offer fervent support from the terraces. Obviously, that will not be as feasible for fans of the Canadians but Scott believes people would make the effort: “Canadian fans will travel. Only if the price is right. Partnerships must be made with hotels in the UK to keep prices down and Canadians will go. If you could organise a trip to the UK to watch a game and comeback within 4 days for roughly $700 I, personally, would be all over that. This sport was designed by working class people for working class people. If we don’t have to break the bank to go and watch, we will and in droves. But I do not speak for all as I only have one daughter and if you would like to travel with a large family this could end up getting quite pricey. But I would guess bringing a family of four from Aberdeen to the cliffs of Dover could also be quite pricey.”
That last point is interesting and one that Nicholas’ view builds on: “it’s simply too expensive for most people to come for a short visit and just to see rugby league. It needs to be part of a much bigger holiday for most people, in order to justify the cost. A week or two in England, seeing the sites, perhaps visiting relatives for some, and also seeing rugby league is what people will want. For that reason, I believe the numbers will never be huge.” He further added, though, that unlike in the UK away fans is a new concept to Canadians. “Teams are so far apart and the cost involved (as well as the time to travel there and back) make it completely impractical to see them play out of town. Trips to see our teams in other cities are coupled with other things to see and do in those locations, and bus-loads/plane-loads of travelling supporters just doesn’t happen.
These views are totally understandable. From the handful of Toronto matches Get ’em Onside has seen, there are clearly small pockets of Wolfpack fans in the grounds. One would assume that some of these would be Canadians based in the UK – a market that the club should look to get involved.
It is clear that, like it or not, Toronto Wolfpack are here to stay. Thus far, the club have been a success and have started to string together big wins in the Betfred Championship. From the fans who have spoken to me – more than just the three involved in this article – their warmth and interest in the game is palpable and, if we are to continue growing rugby league going forwards, that can surely only be a good thing.