League Express spoke to Toronto Wolfpack owner David ARrgyle last week on the eve of the Million Pound Game to ask him about the current and future state of the game in his city.
Q: There’s a lot of scepticism around Toronto. Do you understand it?
A: I think the scepticism is well-founded. It should be open to lots of debate. Hopefully, we can settle the debate by the achievements to date on the field and off the field. The city is fantastic when people feel it and taste it, it’s very different from reading about it. Seeing is believing; we highly encourage people to come over and have the holiday of their life.”
Q: What sort of impact would promotion have on Toronto’s early-season schedule, with the climate hardly ideal for Rugby League in February and March?
A: We’ll sit down with Super League and the RFL to hopefully have a schedule that doesn’t risk a game being played too early here. If the weather is tough, it has some issues for player welfare, but the fans will find it tough too. Depending on the schedule, we’ll be playing those games in other capital cities in Europe that people will really enjoy. Assuming we get there, we’ll be taking Super League to major European cities that haven’t been exposed to it before. There’s a great opportunity there to get greater awareness of the sport by having two elite teams go at each other. Expats can see some rugby and you can engage with new fans. What’s not to like?
Q: What would Super League rugby do economically for the city of Toronto?
A: In year one we had over 1,000 visiting fans. This year, that went up to 3,000 and next year, depending on what other games that we can host here, our target is 15,000 fans visiting Toronto if we’re in Super League. What that means is that UK-based arrivals at Pearson Airport will increase by 14.5 per cent, and dependent on how long those fans stay, we’ll increase room occupancy across hotels in Toronto by 2 per cent. Toronto is the fourth-biggest metropolitan area in North America, and it’s a wonderful place. We think it’ll be perfect for rugby fans to come and experience.
Q: There have been questions asked about Toronto’s intentions with youth development. Is that high on the agenda?
A: Absolutely! It’s very important to develop rugby players of the future. We already have one Canadian player in our squad in Quinn Ngawati, who will be a wonderful rugby talent going forward. He’s got all of the attributes required to be a hit in rugby, and we’ll work with him. We work well with Rugby Ontario in their endeavours and efforts. They have a rugby rookie programme which they put 100,000 kids through a year, and that’s phenomenal. What the Wolfpack can offer is a pathway into professional rugby, irrespective of the code.
Q: Is the ultimate goal to produce a lot of Canadian players representing Toronto Wolfpack?
A: Not just for the Wolfpack, we’d love to see other competitive Canadian players in the Academies of other clubs and we’re a good pathway. What we want to do is try and find and develop those players and that’s what will occur. Now Canadian kids can see it and touch it, they can come to Lamport, see the excitement of the game and see it’s there for them. But even kids who just want to enjoy playing social rugby, that’s fantastic, because it grows the size of the pie, and that’s where we have achieved collectively a lot more than some other of the other major sporting codes. The NFL has been flirting with a London-based franchise for a long, long time. Well, the RFL and the clubs have done it and congratulations are deserved for everyone.
Q: What other games do you envisage Toronto being able to host in the near future?
A: We’ve had preliminary discussions regarding hosting international matches next year at the end of the season, and subject to the availability of BMO Field, which holds just over 30,000, it would be sold out in a heartbeat. I’m confident you would get fans from the United States, Canada, the UK and France coming.
Q: Lamport Stadium has been your home so far, is there a fear you might out-grow it?
A: I love Lamport; it’s gritty, built in the 60s. It needs a facelift and we have plans to do that from the end of the season. I’d like to have 10,000 sold out. It feels like the right place for this game. I’d rather have 10,000 enthusiastic fans in that capacity than play in a much larger stadium that doesn’t have that ambience. The ambience is with the players and the fans, you can feel the buzz the moment you walk in. That’s part of the fan experience, which is really important.
Q: You speak a lot about recruiting ‘360 people’. Can you explain what that means?
A: What we’re trying to do is have a culture where members who join the Pack share a similar view on how to live life being so deeply involved in rugby. I spent time educating myself how important it is to find the right fit of a player and they have to embrace the ethos of the club and what it means to put on that jersey. That’s what we are looking for and when new recruits are suggested that is a real consideration. A team of individuals never beats a team of committed players who share views. I think we’ve got a squad that has that and if someone steps outside of what we deem to be our core values, it becomes an easy decision to say it’s not the right fit. That’s what we’re trying to look for.
Q: You’ve had to make some tough decisions, as an example what happened in the pre-season and players being released.
A: The reality is that those decisions are simple. They’re not difficult, they’re straightforward. Their actions reflect what we stand for, which is rugby balls in kids hands, making Toronto a centre of rugby excellence and a platform for our sponsors to be associated with our club and drive their businesses in certain directions. If actions of individuals fall out of those parameters the decision is actually easy. There might be some short-term pain, but it’s better to have that than death by a thousand cuts.
Q: You’ve put a lot of focus on securing broadcast deals globally. Has that been a success?
A: We have to increase the eyes on the broadcast. We have achieved a lot, we’re on three channels in Canada, we’ve got 11 Sports which is ultimately a channel owned by ATAT in the United States, Setanta in Asia and Fox Sports in Australia. We are broadcast into 115 million homes. I’m not saying they all watch us but that’s a great platform. Once you create that awareness people will start picking it up. We’ve got to get the platform correct. If you get that, the product will engage sports fans. It’s easy to watch at the right time now, especially in the Eastern seaboard. There are 1,900 colleges in the United States with rugby programmes, so let’s make sure they’re fully aware of the RFL, Super League and Toronto and what we have to offer them. It’s a really exciting time. I know there have been some issues this year with the competition structure, but now we can look forward, so let’s look at increasing the size of the pie significantly on a bigger basis, let’s not forget the opportunity in other jurisdictions. Let’s make sure our games are available for as many eyeballs as possible. That’s just one part of a multi-pronged strategy to increase the size and awareness of the product. Rugby stands for teamwork, commitment and loyalty, on and off the field. It’s easy to communicate that beyond the UK.
Q: How have travelling fans been?
A: Great. They’re always invited (to his restaurant) the night before the match. We had some great experiences. The most fun, without a doubt, was Swinton. It’s a Japanese Fusion. Normally Friday is a bit of a date night typically, then in come a couple of hundred Swinton fans singing in their club colours. It opened the eyes of our regulars who were having a romantic night having very loud, boisterous and extremely fun fans share the evening with them. They drank my restaurant dry of all the kegs and bottles. It was wonderful. The game day the day after saw them embracing our fans and that was really heart-warming. The average knowledge of our fans isn’t up to their level just yet and we don’t even have a song, although one of the Halifax lads who is part of their LS28 Supporters Group has promised they’ll create us a song written by them for our fans to sing.