The Toronto Wolfpack. “Who?” you might ask. Although even the keenest of sports fans would be forgiven for not knowing about this rugby league side, who ply their trade in England’s third tier, they represent a tantalising prospect for the future of sport collectively.
In addition to transforming themselves from obscure pub trivia to the first Transatlantic Super League side, the Wolfpack aim to spike North American interest in their own sport and play a key role in securing the 2025 World Cup for the continent. Additionally, if the Wolfpack is a success, it could provide a model for the much-discussed and highly anticipated project to create a London-based National Football League (NFL) franchise.
The man behind this ambitious project is Toronto-born broadcaster Eric Perez, who fell in love with rugby league whilst living in Birmingham nine years ago. Describing it as the most Canadian sport not played in Canada, he has aspired to create a team and introduce the sport to his homeland. No mean feat.
Financing the project presented a major obstacle. Perez successfully gathered numerous financial backers to his project, most importantly David Argyle, an Australian mining tycoon based in North America, who is the club’s main investor. Sponsorship deals have been astutely secured, most impressively with the airline Air Transat who will cover all of Toronto’s travel to and from England.
Additionally, the company are supporting English sides’ away fixtures, allowing the full squad, coaches and backroom staff to Toronto for free, whilst fans will receive subsidised travel. Perez has secured the 10,000 seater Lamport Stadium in Toronto as the Wolfpack’s long-term home and has sold the broadcasting rights for TV stations across Canada and the UK.
How practical is a transatlantic sports team? The team’s opening fixture of the season was at Siddal, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, in the Challenge Cup third round, some 3,421 miles from Toronto. An accommodating fixture schedule is designed to combat the distances. The Wolfpack played the first five weeks of their season in England but will alternate between home and away fixtures thereafter.
English teams are expected to fly out on a Thursday morning, play the game on Saturday before flying back the following day. Anxiety has been expressed over travelling such long distances but Perez has displayed his characteristic optimism in the face of these concerns, stressing that players would rather spend eight hours on a plane than six on a coach. The reality of the travel will become clear when Oxford RLFC become the first team to play in Toronto on 6 May.
Introducing a new sport into a country is never easy but there appears to be an appetite for rugby league in Canada. A pre-season game at Lamport between the Wolfpack and the Royal Air Force team attracted a crowd of 8,000 spectators and before the season was underway, nearly 3,000 season tickets had been sold, even though the first fixture on Canadian soil is yet to be played.
The Lamport crowd can look forward to seeing a wealth of talent perform on 6 May. Captain Craig Hall has represented Super League outfits Hull FC, Hull KR, and Wakefield Trinity; Tonga prop, FuiFui Moimoi, has played in the NRL for Parramatta Eels and for Super League side Leigh Centurions; as well as local talents such as American centre Ryan Burroughs, Canadian scrum-half Rhys Jacks and prop Tom Dempsey.
The long-term future of the team has also been kept in mind. Scouting programs have been established to target young athletes who did not make the grade to play in the NFL or Canadian Football League (CFL) and adapt their skills for rugby league. The Wolfpack’s results have certainly aided their popularity. So far, they have played perfectly, sitting at the summit of League One, unbeaten in their first four games and into the fifth round of the Challenge Cup. Continued success will not only expand the club’s profile and fan base, but could have important ramifications for the future of rugby league as well as sport generally.
Canada and the USA launched a bid to co-host the 2021 Rugby League World Cup but narrowly missed out, with the tournament being gifted to England. The general sentiment after the dePerez successfully gathered numerous financial backers, most importantly David Argyle, an Australian mining tycoon cision was one of missed opportunity, for both the hosting nations and the sport in general. The bid represented a key opportunity to expand the fan-base beyond its strongholds of Oceania and the UK.
However, there is optimism that a bid for the following tournament, in 2025, would yield success, and the Wolfpack has a large part to play in this process. Their success, it is hoped, will nurture an interest in rugby league on the continent, creating knowledgeable fans and a television audience ready to welcome the pinnacle of the sport. Further expansion is desired from pioneers like Perez, who has made clear his intentions to branch out into Boston and Montreal with new sides. Whether the future sees several North American sides competing in England or a separate North American league system is so far unclear, but both are enticing prospects.
The Wolfpack could have wider ramifications for sport generally. If successful, they could provide a model for transatlantic teams across a wide range of sports. A London-based NFL franchise has long been discussed. Over the past decade, the annual fixtures hosted by Wembley stadium have expanded, from one game a year between 2007 and 2011 to four in the 2017/8 season. Groundwork to realise this dream is underway and, providing the Wolfpack’s season is successful, they could provide a useful working model for this project.
Transatlantic trailblazers? Time will tell.