The 2020 season proved a difficult period for every world sport. Seasons were put on hold, games played in front of empty stadiums while some codes had to deal with virus outbreaks.
The NRL came out of the year in a fairly strong position. It was one of the first sports to return from the COVID lockdown, its strict biosecurity bubble prevented any COVID infections while late season games enjoyed crowds in the tens of thousands while other codes continued to play behind closed doors.
But in the northern hemisphere, rugby league was struggling. The Super League does not enjoy the popularity of its southern hemisphere cousin and it most certainly does not have a billion dollar TV rights deal.
Hit the hardest was the Toronto Wolfpack. After gaining promotion to the Super League following the 2019 season, its record setting 2020 campaign hardly got off the ground before it was halted.
By the time Super League resumed, the club had been booted from the competition in a move heavily criticised by those within the game who have called the game’s leadership self-centred and unwilling to try and grow the sport.
So how did one of the most talked about teams in the rugby league world find itself kicked out of a competition it had fought so hard to enter?
The beginning of the end
When the 2020 Super League season was halted Toronto had not won a game. Not exactly the start they were looking for, made all the more difficult by the fact they had planned on spending half the season in England then half the season in Canada. So all seven matches to that point had been played away from home.
With the competition then postponed, decisions had to be made by the Rugby Football League and Super League about how it would resume.
Unlike the NRL, there are two separate administrative bodies responsible for overseeing the Super League competition. As explained by Martyn Sadler, Super League designates how many club spots are available each season and the RFL hands out club licences.
To add another wrinkle to that, the Super League board is made up of the representatives of the very clubs that play in the competition. Sadler says he doubts the Catalans Dragons would ever have been allowed to enter the competition had that leadership structure existed prior to 2006.
Those same clubs also have the power to choose not to share their TV rights with the Wolfpack.
It also didn’t help that Super League’s CEO Robert Elstone didn’t want the Wolfpack in the competition when Super League resumed.
The Wolfpack were in a dire position during the lockdown. They were in England, were receiving little to no support from the game to pay for accommodation for players and support staff while competing clubs and the game’s CEO saw an opportunity to save some money. To add to that the club also wasn’t eligible for the UK’s bail-out loans or furlough scheme.
Former player Brad Singleton, who moved to Wigan after the Wolfpack halted player payments during the lockdown, supported his former side and said what happened to Toronto would happen to 90 per cent of the other clubs if they were in the same position.
A brief period of hope
With owner David Argyle facing mounting debts, he decided to sell the Wolfpack to a new owner, Carlo LiVolsi who stated he had the funds to keep the club afloat.
LiVolsi managed to secure an extension in late-September 2020 to prove he could keep the club going to gain re-admission in 2021.
Some opposing clubs signalled their support for the Wolfpack including Leeds Rhinos whose chief executive, Gary Hetherington is an advocate of North American rugby league.
Bid for re-admission
Toronto had plenty of support, particularly from those outside the game’s administration. Paul Cooke from the Hull Daily Mail was one such supporter who said he was keen to see Toronto return to the Super League given many of the local sides lacked the financial backing and ambition to remain in the top flight once promoted.
Meanwhile Dave Woods of the BBC carried quotes from former player Jon Wilkin, who was critical of the Super League, saying the competition lacked ambition to spread beyond the north of England if it chose to deny the Wolfpack re-admission.
Wilkin also pointed out his major fear that teams would vote against Toronto based on their own short-term financial interest rather than the long-term benefit of the game.
Meanwhile Elstone shored up his own position, calling the Wolfpack’s initial application “disappointing” and saying the club hadn’t proven an interest in rugby league in Canada. That’s despite Toronto being able to sell out its home ground regularly and even support from NBA team the Toronto Raptors.
With the vote nearing in late-October 2020, Toronto’s chances were dealt a hammer blow when a Super League report recommended clubs vote against the side’s re-admission for the 2021 season despite the Wolfpack offering to play all 2021 games in England and accept a two point deduction for withdrawing from the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
On 3 November 2020, Toronto Wolfpack’s re-admission was voted down 9-4 with one abstention. Leeds Rhinos, St Helens and Catalans Dragons all supported the Wolfpack with Warrington Wolves abstaining from the vote.
As reported in The Guardian by Aaron Bower, Super League’s major concern was over Toronto’s viability in a saturated sports market in North America.
William Jackson at the Hull Daily Mail covered the reaction from across the rugby league world over the decision.
The Yorkshire Evening Post’s Peter Smith was disappointed in Super League’s decision, saying the decision was incredibly sad for the club and the thousands of new fans attracted to the game in Toronto.
Dave Craven from the Yorkshire Post was more scathing, calling the decision a cash grab from opposing clubs who, in voting down the Wolfpack, decided to promote another side to ensure there would be 12 teams in the 2021 season but only hand that club half of what the other 11 clubs receive from the broadcast deal.
Replacing the Wolfpack
With a 12 team competition pencilled in for 2021, Super League had to find a replacement for Toronto from its second tier.
Featherstone, Bradford, York, London, Toulouse and Leigh all applied to be promoted with Leigh Centurions winning out.
As Aaron Bower reported for The Guardian, Leigh has twice previously competed in the top flight, last running out in Super League in 2017. Both times the club has reached the top tier, it has been relegated the following season.
Sky Sports had Robert Elstone defending Super League’s decision to deny Toronto re-admission, saying he had questions over Toronto’s gate revenue despite averaging around 7,000 attendees when it was in the Championship with that number set to grow should the club have been able to host Super League matches.
Elstone was also busy equating Super League’s voting system with that of the English Premier League which consults all 20 top flight sides when making decisions. It’d probably be a more apt discussion if the Premier League wasn’t a multi-billion dollar competition that is the most watched competition on the planet.
Where does this leave Super League?
The Super League, through its own stupidity, has now confined itself to a small corner of England and a single town in France.
It has reduced its own coverage and disenfranchised thousands of supporters it recruited only four years ago.
To say the Wolfpack didn’t offer a return on investment regarding coverage, marketing and Leigh does, is fanciful thinking.
Toronto offered a unique proposition to sponsors by being able to showcase brands on two continents. It is based in one of the largest cities in North America and works alongside many of its competing codes.
As we have previously covered at the Rugby League Monthly, the Wolfpack had set itself up to attract fans of the Raptors, Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, offered an easily accessible ground and opened itself up to investment across Europe and North America.
Of course the club has to take some blame for its withdrawal from Super League due to it being over burdened with debt and not paying employees.
However, no one planned for a pandemic to prevent the season from going ahead and Super League and the other clubs are far more culpable due to their greed and short mindedness through preventing the club from receiving valuable TV rights funds.
Leigh, although I mean no disrespect, is a small town in Greater Manchester that offers little in the way of new investment, new fans or substantial increases in visibility of the game.
The town itself has a population of 41,000 compared to Toronto’s 2.93 million.
As much as the NRL has been criticised over the way it has approached expansion, it has been able to maintain teams outside of the Sydney Metropolitan area for over 30 years.
Super League effectively resembles the NSWRL of the 1970s. Insular, unwilling to change and struggling financially.
It is a game with a leader who would seemingly march itself off a cliff for a few free pizzas.