League Express editor Martyn Sadler speaks to Toronto Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter about his club’s preparations for the 2020 Super League season after their Million Pound Game victory over Featherstone Rovers.
MS: When is the earliest practical time you can actually play home games in Toronto?
BH: We’ve committed from a fixture standpoint that any time after 15th April we’ll be ready. And the weather is quite nice actually from that time of the year.
MS: But you will have some nominal home games before then that will be played elsewhere?
BH: Yes, we are hoping only three.
MS: Have you already approached some potential venues for those games?
BH: We have been talking to other Championship and Super League teams about doing double-headers with their fixtures at their home venues. But we really have to nail that down in the next couple of weeks because schedules are going to come out in another month to six weeks. We are meeting with Super League tomorrow and that’s on the agenda. But then we have to nail down these venues.
MS: I assume that means that no other Super League club will come more than once to Toronto during the regular season?
BH: That’s correct. Everybody only has to come once, and we will generally stick to a Saturday schedule. We won’t play any Thursday or Friday night games in Toronto.
MS: What are the financial implications for you of being in Super League. You won’t get funding from the Sky TV contract. Do you have any funding from TV contracts in North America?
BH: We do not at the moment. But the intent is that we going to work with the League on international rights, which will help offset some of that non-distribution. We will hopefully have other inventories, including the promotion of Rugby Strength products (the newly produced hemp-derived CBD cream that is designed to be a painkiller when applied to aching limbs and joints) in their venues, which we may be able to commercialise with our sister company to try to offset what is a very significant loss of revenue.
MS: I would imagine there must be some Canadian broadcasters who would be looking at you with great interest now.
BH: There are. But again, it’s whether we can commercialise that interest.
MS: You won’t see the benefit of that for some time.
BH: And that happened when Toronto FC came into Major League Soccer. They were a bit of a mystery. They didn’t really enjoy TV revenue for the first three to four years. Similarly, the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League find that their TV revenues are impacted if they are not playing well.
MS: The one difference for you, compared to them, given the structure of the competition, is that you could be relegated and they don’t face that possibility, because they are all franchises. Your first concern has to be that now you are coming up, you don’t want to go back down again.
BH: Absolutely! Brian McDermott and Brian Noble are well aware of that. Coming in on the back of not having those revenue streams, you would think we would back off on our salaries, but we have already decided that that won’t be the case. We will spend to the cap and we will put a very competitive team on the pitch.
MS: Can you tell me about the current ownership of the club? David Argyle started it and financed it individually without much financial support from anyone else. But obviously there may now be other investors coming forward who would like to be involved with the club as it develops. Do you have any other investors who are currently coming on board?
BH: David is the 90 per cent shareholder and he’s the managing partner. He is talking to a number of different investors about joining the family. But I don’t think David at any point would want to give up his majority control because he is just a passionate rugby guy and he loves the game. But I’m sure he is evaluating any opportunities that may arise.
MS: There’s a nagging doubt about what would happen to the club if anything happened to David. How secure would the club’s future be? We have to bear in mind that none of us are here forever.
BH: Part of the whole plan is that we bring in more partners so that we are prepared to continue whatever happens. One of the biggest requirements by the RFL is our sustainability plan. They know what we are investing now on an annual basis, but they want to see that our plans for the future are in place. But David is David, and you can never fully control an outcome that you may not expect.
MS: Given his other business interests he must get almost no sleep at all.
BH: He certainly doesn’t sleep much, but certainly this club is his number one passion, and as an owner he has certainly been great with me, giving me the responsibility for taking the day-to-day business and making it as viable as possible and I’m excited about that challenge.
MS: Can I ask you about your previous experience with sport in Toronto?
BH: In the early part of my career I was involved as a landlord of buildings that were either privately or publicly owned, and we managed major tenants. I started in Vancouver with the Vancouver Whitecaps in North American soccer when they were drawing extremely well, with some games selling out with 50,000 fans. But in the last 25 years, I’ve worked with the NBA and the NFL and with Major League Soccer bringing the game to Toronto. It gives me an insight into the business model for a major sporting. I came from a very successful company, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, that owns five major sports teams in Toronto. They own the Maple Leafs (NHL), the Raptors (NBA), Toronto FC (MLS), the Argonauts (CFL) and the development teams for the Maple Leafs and the Raptors. And one of the company’s major investors owns the Blue Jays (MLB).
MS: Do you think they will make a bid for the Wolfpack at some stage?
BH: There is interest now. Winning does some amazing things, but I don’t think David would want to sell.
MS: Would you ask for the overseas quota limit of five players to be relaxed in your case?
BH: I would turn to the two Brians to evaluate that question, but in my short time with the organisation it has never been brought up. I think they are confident that we can put a very competitive team on the pitch while staying within those regulations. Whether there would be some flexibility as it relates to the introduction of Canadian players remains to be seen. I know that Brian Noble has spent some time watching our Canadian team in the current Rugby Union World Cup, but he says they are just not ready. But there is certainly enough talent from young players coming into the system for us to be able to put out a highly competitive team.
MS: You are hoping to get some improvements to Lamport Stadium to enhance the capacity and modernise it. What is the timescale for that?
BH: Probably over a three-year period, and we expect to start on it in the next two to three months. For example, I hope to have a video screen next year before the season starts. But then it’s a major makeover of the building over a two or three-year period. If capacity were an issue, which I’m obviously hoping it is, then we would already know how we could add more than 2,000 seats.
MS: Any message to the supporters of English or French Super League clubs?
BH: Only that we are very, very excited about being part of the family. And we are very focused on being competitive. We hope that we are intriguing enough to drive attendance numbers and competitive enough so that people know that we are here for real. Travelling fans will have an amazing experience with us.