America. Land of the free. Home of the brave. Future home of rugby league?
The US contains the largest sporting economy in the world. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL pass around enough cash to fund a nation’s economy. The NFL itself is the largest sport in the world when it comes to revenue. In 2018 the league generated $16 billion in revenue, its 32 teams combined are valued at $91 billion.
31 of the league’s 32 teams are owned by billionaires/billion dollar companies.
The American sporting landscape is seen as the world leader in how to run sport like a business. Players are bought and sold as commodities, advertising partnerships are sold at a premium and $100 million can be put towards one player.
Across the pond, when the English Premier League was created in 1992, the club owners and league hierarchy looked to the NFL to understand how they could take their competition out of what was essentially an early 20th century/late 19th century almost feudalistic system and turn it into a major world product, capable of piercing every sporting market on the planet.
The EPL is now the most watched sporting competition in the world and the most recognised sporting brand. Go to any corner of the world, find a bar and you’re almost guaranteed to find a supporter of a Premier League club.
Rugby league could only dream of that type of cut-through. But a market exists for the sport on the North American continent.
Enter the Pack
If you were to stereotype Canada, it’d be known for two things. Hockey and maple syrup.
Perhaps less well-known is the fact the country is home to the most rugby league fans outside of Australia, the UK, New Zealand and France.
In 2014 a process was started by a consortium of businessmen in Canada who saw a chance to establish a professional rugby league club in the country. By 2017 the Toronto Wolfpack had entered the English Rugby Football League’s League One, three levels below the fully professional Super League.
By 2019 they had secured promotion to the Super League and entered the 2020 season. The club had grown from a modest group of mostly expats and lower grade players, to a team now boasting superstar Sonny Bill Williams, alongside a host of former NRL and other Super League players. They have also been filling their home ground on a regular basis, a healthy indicator of the popularity of the sport.
Canada, and to a wider extent North America, is not an easy market to crack. In the United States the NFL rules the winter months, in Canada it is the NHL.
Jon Pallett, Vice President, Commercial at the Wolfpack explained the club had to work out how to fit into the sporting calendar and then compete for commercial dollars as well as fans with already-established franchises, while also showcasing a new sport.
“We’ve got the Maple Leafs here in Toronto and they draw more sponsorship revenue than any other team in the NHL and they are just a 20,000 arena but they’ve been sold out every game for 20 years. So that’s the religion over here, that’s what people talk about at the bus stop in the morning and on their coffee breaks and lunch.
“We’ve also got the Toronto Raptors who are an expansion team in themselves and the Blue Jays who are an expansion team in baseball and both of those organisations are gigantic, professional sport teams. The Raptors are the NBA champions. They won the championship last year. And the Jays have 82 games in Toronto and 82 games in the States. But they’ve got a massive 45,000 arena downtown. So we’re really competing with three massive sports teams,” Pallett said.
Alongside the Raptors, Leafs and Blue Jays, the Wolfpack also has to compete with the MLS’ Toronto FC as well as the Canadian Football League.
But amongst all the competition for money and fans is an opportunity. A community that watches a variety of sports is often open to new ideas and new codes. Pallett explained the Wolfpack identified the Toronto area as an area open to the prospect of a new sport entering the market.
“So for us it’s a sports city which does help because people love their sport here and women love their sport and kids love their sport and the demographic at any game for any of those teams is always very family orientated. The entertainment is very family orientated, it’s North America so there’s lots of cheerleaders and mascots and t-shirt tosses and things like that.”
He also added that while competing in the winter market is generally out of the question, the summer market provides an opportunity and breathing room for the Wolfpack to take advantage of.
“I think we’re quite fortunate that the Leafs who play hockey and the Raptors who play basketball, we don’t have a lot of crossover with those two teams because our home opener is in mid-April and those guys are either done or they’ve made the playoffs but the bulk of our season we’re able to build a summer’s day event when the two biggest teams in the city are not playing.
“We’re able to build a summer’s day event when the two biggest teams in the city are not playing.”Jon Pallett
“So it’s almost, we help fans to have a 12 months a year opportunity to watch sport and we certainly have Raptors and Leafs fans that come to our games and we also share a fanbase with the Blue Jays in Baseball and Toronto FC and Toronto Argonauts.”
Rugby league clubs though are nothing without their fans. In Australia the support comes over generations. Many of the Sydney-based clubs have been established for over 50 years in one form or another, allowing teams to leverage brand recognition that already exists. For Pallett and his team though, they had to start from the ground up and establish that first generation of fans.
“In year one of the Wolfpack they managed to get 500 members to sign up for what was a very good deal membership – $200 Canadian Dollars for a 12 game season… The stadium that we have is in a district in Toronto called Liberty Village, which, if you could pick that stadium up and put it anywhere in the city, you would end up putting it exactly where it is.
“We were able to immediately claim the people who lived within a couple of blocks of our stadium, because we had a professional sport on their doorstep. We were able to attract the English, the Aussies and the Kiwi communities in Toronto who already knew about rugby or rugby league and we were able to bring in the local rugby clubs; the players, the parents and the kids from those teams.”
While fans provide the base level of support needed for a club to become viable, professional sports heavily rely on commercial sponsorship to remain financially afloat. The Wolfpack were able to take advantage of the popularity of their more established competitors, with sponsorship deals for those teams often so expensive many companies were priced out of the market.
“I think what happened on the commercial side is there are a lot of sponsors or potential sponsors that get blocked out because they can’t quite afford to compete at the level of sponsorship investment that is required,” Pallett said.
“I think partners that do want to play in this space do have an option with the Wolfpack of paying, particularly in the first three years, a tiny percentage of what it would have cost them to associate with the Jays, the Leafs or the Raptors. But really the big draw for our sponsors has been the ability to be active in two markets. So in the UK and in Canada.
“We were able to cut-through by saying to sponsors, you can pay to sponsor us in Toronto and you get this association from the games we play in the UK. And similarly we can pull in a UK sponsor and say look at the 100,000 fans at the stadium that are going to watch that, look at the TV numbers in Toronto, look at our social following that’s split between the UK and Canada and Australia and New Zealand.”
“So that’s kind of how we were able to get sponsors on board, that was our unique selling point to them. This was not a significant sponsorship compared to the cost to associate with any other team and you’re able to get both markets,” he said.
The Toronto Wolfpack are the first and currently only fully professional rugby league team participating in a top tier competition from North America. But with the success of the Wolfpack, comes the inspiration for others to enter the fray. Canadian neighbours, the Ottawa Aces, are headed by Wolfpack co-founder Eric Perez and will enter the Betfred League 1 in 2021, following the same path as Toronto.
New York, New York
New York City has also declared its intention to enter the Betfred League 1 in 2022, bringing the total number of professional outfits in North America to three.
This could perhaps serve as the single biggest springboard rugby league has ever enjoyed in growing its sport beyond Oceania and small corners of Europe. New York is an ever-growing market, home to the world’s economy and is effectively the gateway to the American public.
As Frank Sinatra once said, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Ricky Wilby has been involved in rugby league for over 20 years. Originally from Huddersfield in the UK, Wilby now leads the New York City Rugby League bid to enter a team into the Rugby Football League, effectively following the path of the Toronto Wolfpack.
He and his colleagues, much like the Wolfpack, see an opportunity in taking advantage of the summer months, when the NFL lies dormant. Their season runs from September to the first weekend of February with a regular season covering only 17 weeks.
“There is a big gap in the market throughout the summer months, we feel that we appeal to the contact sport fans throughout the summer months,” Wilby said.
“There is a big gap in the market throughout the summer months.”Ricky Wilby
He knows the path to recognition in the US will be tough given the sport still remains a relative unknown and is often confused for rugby union. It’s also tougher in the sense that New York is home to two NFL franchises, two NBA franchises and two MLB franchises who all have incredibly valuable history in the region.
“Initially we will have to earn every column inch and minute on tv, we believe in our structures to grow the game organically in the states, creating a community fan base that clubs around the world will envy.”
He also added that in order to get their idea off the ground, they will need to look to the NFL system of private ownership before investigating other structures.
“To begin with, we will have a private ownership structure, there is scope to bring in a different model in the future, but initially we will be privately owned,” he said.
New York have said they will be looking to host three NRL teams in the 2021 pre-season while also hosting two international sides before the 2021 world cup, to be hosted in England.
The Wolfpack have also signalled they are open to hosting NRL teams in North America.
How does rugby league make it?
At the moment, the likes of Toronto, Ottawa and New York are taking a “build it and they will come” approach. Their position, and Toronto is proving this, is that in order to attract the next generation of players, they need a product to showcase that is local. By having a local, professional side they are providing a pathway for kids to enter the sport. In many ways it’s also similar to the way Cricket Australia established the current form of the Big Bash League. And if you think that is just a coincidence, think again, because Pallett worked for the Sydney Sixers across two summers.
“We are able to create a little bit of an event which is suitable for families and people who want to come out and have a drink, and we’re able to, like cricket did in Australia when the Big Bash was formed (create a family atmosphere). I used to work for the Sydney Sixers, so that’s kind of how I see this project and what we’re trying to achieve,” Pallett said.
On the commercial side, the Wolfpack is showing that rugby league can attract organisations that are priced out of the already established sports in the American market while simultaneously using their connections in the UK to offer intercontinental opportunities.
“The Wolfpack is showing that rugby league can attract organisations that are priced out of the already established sports in the American market.”
In terms of attracting fans, the easiest route is through expats from the UK, New Zealand and Australia. This was the tactic first utilised by the Wolfpack to gain traction in the local market. Rugby league can also look to take advantage of the growing popularity of rugby union in North America. While rugby union does garner more attention due to the International Sevens, there are no full professional rugby union clubs in a professional competition.
The Wolfpack utilised this fact in attracting fans who were already familiar with the sport closest to rugby league and therefore more open to attending matches.
“So there’s probably 20 rugby clubs in Ontario which is the province that Toronto is in. And the majority of those have got boys and girls teams and womens teams, so there is a community rugby element, but they’ve never had a professional team.”
The growth of rugby league in North America is a potential launching pad for the sport to begin infiltrating the rest of the world. While it enjoys growing popularity in Europe, it lacks the necessary funds and backing to become a premier sport.
North America provides funding and a fan base capable of expanding rapidly. They have a population drawn to contact sports and a sizeable summer window where the most popular established sports are on a break.
Who knows, perhaps in 10 years’ time Gus Gould will be waxing lyrical about the Sunday afternoon football he watched in New York.