Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League - Time looming for Super League and Toronto Wolfpack to face the music
LATER THIS week Super League clubs will decide whether to readmit Toronto Wolfpack to the competition for 2021.
In a year of tricky decisions, this is one of the toughest and potentially most significant.
More than just the future of one club is at stake; what is on the line is whether rugby league can - or even wants to - break out of its traditional boundaries and make an impact on an international scale.
To recap, Toronto - who entered the professional game in 2017 - were promoted to Betfred Super League on merit last year, having topped the Championship table and gone on to win the Grand Final.
Before coronavirus shut down the competition in March, they had lost six successive league games and were bottom of the table, though their final fixture was a Coral Challenge Cup win at Huddersfield Giants. All of their games had been played away from home.
Toronto do not receive a cut of Super League’s money from Sky TV and so rely (or relied) heavily on owner David Argyle. Unfortunately, the financial crisis caused by coronavirus hit both him and the club particularly hard and, in July, Wolfpack announced they were withdrawing from this year’s Super League and Challenge Cup competitions.
It emerged salaries of players and staff had gone unpaid and, over the past couple of months, many of Wolfpack’s biggest names, including marquee signing Sonny Bill Williams, have moved on, either on loan or permanent deals. Even before lockdown, it was obvious some poor decisions had been made by the Canadian club.
Rather than building a deep playing group to cope with an arduous 29-game - as it was due to be - league campaign, they spent big on certain players and assembled only a 23-man squad, which was never going to be enough.
As early as round two, coach Brian McDermott was unable to name a full 21-man initial squad. While Williams was worth the vast sum spent on him in publicity terms, performance-wise he fell well short of what was expected and needed from the competition’s highest-earner.
To have any credibility, there are two things a professional sports team must do, whatever the circumstances - pay their wages and fulfil fixtures.
Toronto have failed this year on both counts. Even in exceptional times, that reflects badly on both them and the competition.
However, potential new owners have now stepped forward with a commitment to ensure all players are paid in full for 2020, if Wolfpack are readmitted to Super League next year.
Documents outlining Wolfpack’s future viability have been distributed to Super League clubs and a board meeting on Friday is expected to decide their fate.
At the moment, it appears Wolfpack’s rivals are split over whether they should be readmitted to the top division in 2021. Clearly, doing so would be a gamble, but Super League has a lot to gain.
Wolfpack - and in particular their coup in signing dual-code World Cup winner Williams - attracted global headlines and massive interest at the start of this season. Last year, in the second tier, Toronto’s average home crowd for league matches was 6,988. That’s better than four Super League clubs managed and all of those near-7,000 are new to the sport.
Does rugby league really want to turn its back on those new fans, as well as the value Wolfpack add to the competition in terms of publicity?
The sport’s TV deal is coming up for renegotiation and there’s no doubt it will be worth more with a Canadian club on the fixture list.
North America is a huge sports market and, having established the tiniest toe hold, rugby league may well consider it a backwards move to let go.
Toronto have created an event atmosphere and maybe most of their supporters would stick with them if they dropped into a lower division, but they would be a far harder sell to new owners.
Allowing Toronto to drop out this year and simply pick up in 2021 from where they left off is not ideal for Super League and would cause a certain amount of resentment, but the alternative scenario is a bleaker one for the game as a whole.
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