It was confirmed last week that, along with a bid from New York, a consortium based in the Canadian capital of Ottawa would get an opportunity to present to clubs in April with a bid to entering a team in League 1 for 2020. The man behind that bid, Eric Perez, has revealed more about the bid’s validity in an exclusive Q&A with League Express.
Aaron Bower (AB): How significant a step is it being able to present to the clubs?
Eric Perez (EP): It’s a massive piece of the puzzle for the sport’s development – and it’s completely different to anything that’s gone on before. It’s a relocation, rather than a new club coming into the RFL. To be honest, I welcome speaking to my fellow members about this because I do think they’ll be on board.
AB: Is the game ready for more North American teams?
EP: The Toronto project was unproven at the time, and they had to take my word for it at some point. I’d proven I could draw crowds; I got 7,000 watching the national team at Lamport. But it was still a big step being unfamiliar with the market. The Wolfpack have done the work to prove that there’s a massive appetite for Rugby League here, and we’re taking this a step further now. We’re partnered with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, who already own three teams and the stadium, so the infrastructure is already there. We can slot right in, and I truly believe we’ll have one of the best commercial setups in Rugby League history.
AB: What’s the appeal of Ottawa?
EP: It’s an incredible city. There are 1.5 million residents, and my family lives there, so that was a big factor for me. But the OSEG was the number one factor, and what they can bring to the party. It’s in such a cool spot; it straddles the border of Ontario and Quebec, and there’s around 400,000 people whose first language is French. It’s such a fun place to visit.
AB: How much further ahead are you than Toronto were at this stage?
EP: It’s much more turn-key. With Toronto, you had to build everything from scratch and couldn’t focus on certain areas of the business. You had to be spinning a lot of plates simultaneously but because of what the OSEG brings, we’ll be able to focus on key projects straight away like player development domestically, and community programmes; that sort of thing.
AB: One criticism of Toronto is perhaps their junior development programmes. What’s your approach?
EP: Junior development is 100% on my agenda. This is going to help Toronto too, because we’ll both get the same thing. We’re a five-hour drive apart but in Canadian terms that’s a big sporting rivalry. A key thing to look at is Toronto Raptors; when they started in the NBA in 1995 there was one Canadian player: Rick Fox at the Lakers. There’s already more than one in the RFL – there’s three or four. As a guy who grew up in Toronto, I remember seeing no basketball nets on houses – now it’s like half the houses that have one and in the last five years, there’s been five Canadians drafted in the first round. In 10 to 15 years I think you’ll see a super strong Canadian national team, with domestic feeder systems and good Canadian players playing for North American and English teams.
AB: With a relocation, how does it affect how you present to the clubs?
EP: We’ll essentially present our case for relocation to the clubs. It’s what the RFL board wants us to do and we have no problem with that, because want to keep our fellow members up to date and to have that openness with them. Because I’ve got a great infrastructure and provide a great service for the people of Ottawa, we have to be confident.
AB: Should the long-term goal be a North American League?
EP: It’s always been my goal to see our existing league as the northern hemisphere league, rather than doing anything individually. I think we’re on the way to doing that and it can only be a good thing for league. I think it will benefit everyone for us to expand our region in North America. If we do that, England have a better chance of winning a World Cup. If there are more North American teams, it will raise the standard of the economic profile the sport has, and we’ll be able to bring significant money into the game if we’re allowed to grow. If that happens, within 5-10 years the best Australian players, current internationals, will be playing in the RFL English system rather than playing in Australia, rather than us getting the second-tier players. And the best English players will stay here in England because there’s more money. It’s that simple.
AB: It’s been said you are in direct competition with New York.. is that the case?
EP: I really hope the New York bid goes through too. There’s no competition whatsoever between us as we’re not an expansion, we’re a relocation – the idea is to have more North American teams and bring more money into the game.
AB: When do you need approval realistically to be ready to go for 2020?
EP: I would like to be a go by the end of April – that’s a fair timeline I think. It will take a miracle worker to turn it round and get it ready, but I have been a miracle worker before. If it drags out, it will be difficult – but because the TV deal is ending soon over there in the UK, I think it’s imperative that more big areas get into the sport.
AB: What level of broadcast deals do you have in place?
EP: You’ve got to be patient with broadcast deals and build them up. Take the NFL for example. It used to be a free arrangement to watch that in the UK, but now it’s a huge deal and it’s on a subscription channel. The important thing right now is getting people interested on the floor in Canada, because the landscape of how we consume professional sport is changing and Rugby League needs to be ready for that. This could take it to the next stratosphere, having a second Canadian team. It will really ramp up the rivalry and the profile of the game here. It’s nothing short of a miracle how the Wolfpack have taken Toronto by storm, but I predicted it because I believe so much in this game. The Ottawa concept would be the next significant step.
AB: What happened with Hamilton?
EP: I was thinking about Hamilton long and hard. I had some talks over there but it was hard to make the schedule work with the stadium – and the Ottawa deal is just perfect, so I couldn’t pass it up. There were other cities interested. It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my career. And as far as being confident about getting approval, I have confidence that the member clubs will be enthused by what we can bring to the table, though I know the ultimate decision lies with the RFL.