RUGBY LEAGUE HITTING THE NEXT LEVEL WITH TORONTO
Updated: Jan 27
This article was originally published on October 9th, 2019.
The Super League appears to be at a pivotal point in its history, and taking the show on the road appears to form part of its long-term strategy.
The recent success of the Toronto Wolfpack, after the won the Million Pound Game, offers an idea of the future of the Super League as it attempts to establish roots abroad.
The Super League is the highest level of rugby league competition for European teams. Originally founded in 1996, the league replaced the RFL Championship, the previous top-flight in Britain.
The league's ranks were exclusively composed of teams from English, except for one continental side Paris Saint Germain, which dropped out after the end of the 1997 season.
Along with the Rugby Football League (RFL), the UK’s governing body for rugby league, the Super League outlined plans for growth. Both organizations set to catapult the competition further into the public eye, which required the sport to stretch beyond the sport's heartland in the North of England.
Recently the sport again branched into the European market, with the addition of French side, Catalan Dragons, who are based in the city of Perpignan. The Dragons earlier this year, broke the record regular-season Super League record crowd, with 31,555 attendees, when they welcomed the Wigan Warriors to Barcelona's Nou Camp.
This success has seen the Super League and the RFL set their sights on more growth further afield in North America. Ottawa and New York are set to join the RFL pyramid in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
Add the newly promoted Wolfpack to the mix, and the sport looks to have been reinvigorated.
Million Pound Game
Joyous chants of “Super League!” pierced the Canadian air at the weekend. As the Lamport Stadium crowd embraced a fantastic sport that is much loved by too few.
The 9,974 strong crowd was a record for the franchise and for the Million Pound Game, which saw the Toronto Wolfpack secured promotion to Rugby League’s top tier just three years into the franchise’s existence.
It looked like Toronto might fall at the last promotion hurdle for the second year in a row as Featherstone gave the Wolfpack all it could handle. However, the transatlantic team kept coming and imposed its will in the final 25 minutes, securing their 28th win in 29 outings in 2019 and 23rd straight.
The Wolfpack's victory means that they will become the first non-European team to join the top flight.
The Wolfpack's incredible journey started when Chairman of the Canada Rugby League Eric Perez, outlined his vision for a professional rugby league side in Toronto. Four years later, Rugby League in Canada is no longer a wild and whacky dream but a reality, that is proving to be succeeding on the field.
It has so far been an incredible journey, with two promotions in three years through the lower English leagues.
Perez's confidence in the experiment persuaded Australian mining tycoon David Argyle to financially back the Wolfpack to the tune of an estimated $10.3m.
Argyle who had placed himself as the club's chairman and chief executive decided to sack himself in June after he made a self-acknowledged racist remark to a Swinton player. Argyle remains the main financial backer of the team.
Argyle had stated the long-term goal for the Wolfpack is "to get rugby balls into the hands of kids across North America."
“We’re just a stepping stone towards further growth,” Wolfpack CEO, Bob Hunter, said. “The USA, more teams in Canada, everywhere ... this is so unique and being in Super League is going to take the profile to the next level. Any exposure for this game is a positive, surely? Why wouldn’t you want that?”
The team has caught the attention of the local Toronto population, with the team seeing around 9,500 coming to their home games. This is impressive especially when you compare it to other local sports teams such as the CFL's Toronto Argonauts who often only play in front of just 12,000 supporters.
Perez would leave the Wolfpack as he is now working on a similar plan to begin the same journey with another Canadian club in Ottawa. They are due to enter the lower levels of the professional leagues in 2021.
It is generally agreed that North America does need at least two top-flight clubs to sustain the long term viability of rugby league in that part of the world.
The Wolfpack will not be welcomed into the Super League with universal approval. With a minority of club chief executives and chairmen mutter about the uncertainty and potential extra costs to fans, while a glance at social media shows a polarisation of opinion when it comes to rugby league fans' take on the newly-promoted side.
However, this is an exciting, unprecedented chapter for the sport of rugby league.
It may prove to be the beginning of a revolution and real growth for the game in the northern hemisphere if it can fully tap into the Canadian and US market. It may just be an interesting diversion for the next couple of years that eventually fizzles out.
Whichever it proves to be, Toronto Wolfpack will add some interest and spice to the Super League scenery next year.
The 2020 season is going to be huge for the Super League. The expansion of Super League into North America offers more exposure and more profile for this sport. It opens the door to new revenue streams from new sponsors and broadcasting deals.
Every team will now be motivated with the fresh belief that the Super League is no longer a monopoly, having only previously been won by Leeds, Wigan, St Helens, and Bradford, with Warrington, Hull and Castleford the only other sides to reach the Grand Final.
Therefore, every team knows they will have to step up their game to be among the honors with Toronto’s arrival adding an extra dimension. It is an exciting time to see how rugby league moves forward as a global game, either in this form or in the next version.