“Ontario will be your next rugby league hotbed”

“When I have a vision, **** actually happens, so pay attention when I have a vision.”

It’s hard to disagree with Perez on that.

He was mocked, laughed at and called a lunatic when he came up with the fanatical idea of bringing a trans-Atlantic team into the UK game.

Yet, less than four years after he shocked the world by officially unveiling the Toronto Wolfpack, he’s introduced a second Canadian team, Ottawa Aces. It’s a move that would have been simply incomprehensible before he entered the scene.

Inevitably then, the first question to ask Perez about his new project is about his vision for the club.

“I think what you’re going to see with Ottawa coming in is Ontario becoming your next Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, Queensland or New South Wales. In a generation or two it will be a Rugby League hotbed, another piece in the tapestry of Rugby League,” he says.

It’s a bold, perhaps even brash statement. But Toronto Wolfpack was bold and to many it was brash, yet they’re now a Super League team.

Contrasting approach

Inevitably, comparisons and contrasts between the Wolfpack and the Aces are brought up regularly in an hour-long conversation.

Perez is the founder of the Wolfpack, but he left within a few months of them being operational and competing on the field. That experience is one he plans on using to enhance his latest creation during its infancy.

“We’re going to learn all the lessons from Toronto, good and bad,” he said.

“There are mistakes and things that are done well. We will try to not make the mistakes and do the things they do well better. Hopefully, we can be better; you always want the next thing to be better.”

When Perez presented his Ottawa vision to other clubs at a meeting in Salford last year, he mapped out the differences between the two.

The largest one was around player pool developments. Perez himself admitted that he would like to have adopted a different approach than with Toronto, a less aggressive approach to earning success and a more organic road to success.

That remains the case, even though Perez doesn’t think people should expect a team full of Canadians when they debut.

“We want more Canadians than Toronto but it has to be the right guys too,” he says.

“Truthfully, the true talent is in the next generation who are watching it now, who are inspired to pursue a career in Rugby League before thinking about other sports. It’s just really a generational thing, but I still think in some key positions, wing, centre, props, you could really unearth some serious talent. There are some exceptional talents over here.

Building foundations

“I believe we need to be a winning team from the start. You’re not going to do something as ambitious as this to linger around the bottom of the table. We’d have kept it in Hemel if that’s what we wanted to do.

“When you do something like this there has to be a professional winning team and it is imperative that we get promoted in the first two years. I don’t say we have to go up in the first year, I’m not going to put that pressure on us. But I think it would be good for the game ahead of a new TV cycle, to sell it with us being in the Championship.

“Once we get up to the Championship though, if we’re there for ten years, we’re there for ten years. It’s about being competitive and entertaining, building foundations in the community and on the field. It takes a generation to develop people but developing that generation has to start now

“If everyone was available, a couple of Canadians in the team would be awesome. But we’re from a culture where our teams had no Canadians. The Blue Jays (baseball) have been sporadic, the Raptors (basketball) have had one or two ever. The NHL, the ice hockey team, used to be all Canadians, but are now filled with foreigners.

“It can’t be all up to just Ottawa either, but we will do our best to create an Academy system, with intermural leagues in the Academy.
“Ideally if I can do my thing, we’ll have three or four teams under our umbrella in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec that act as a Canadian Reserve Grade league.

At the heart

“Canada RL has to be at the heart of development. Everyone has to pick up their fair share without us having to worry about developing an entire nation.”
For now, there are more immediate matters to attend to. Most notably, hiring a coach, signing players and developing a fanbase.

“I will hire the right person to do the recruiting and the head coaching,” he said.

“I will put that team in place and then I will let them express themselves after that. I won’t meddle in the rugby stuff.

“The coach has to be able to talk well, be marketable and good with the public and face the unique challenges of a team that tours, whether that be in the UK or in Canada. Here’s the thing, when you travel with the team it can get stronger or weaker. When you’re with somebody it affects you in close quarters. That’s the real thing, are they a good communicator too?

Even some of the best coaches aren’t qualified for this job. But it doesn’t mean we have to go with someone who has done it before. Human beings have their own potential and you have to sometimes let them fulfil it.

“If we equal the Wolfpack’s attendances we’d be happy. It’s a better stadium and a better experience. The Wolfpack is an unbelievable experience, one of the best in the sport and we know how to put a party on there. That’s why you get 10,000 people turning up to watch Rugby League in Toronto. It’s in an area of Lansdown, it’s a cool area, cool restaurants and bar, people go there to hang-out. The in-game experience, they have those standing room areas that they have in Toronto, it’s just fun first and then it’s oh yeah, we’re off to see rugby second. That’s why people come to sports, to have a good time.

“You have the diehards, but others go for the experience and tradition. They enjoy the game but they go for the entire experience.”

Overcoming the sceptics

Perez talks a good game. There’s little doubting that. But despite that, there remains some scepticism.

Similar to New York, Ottawa’s investors remain anonymous. Last year, Perez claimed that 15 people were involved who could fund it on their own. Now, he claims it’s about 20. But their identities are unknown.

“No one has enough skin in the game to be public,” he says.

“They are people I’ve known my whole life, they’re friends and we’re going back old school family ties. They all had a chance to get involved in the Wolfpack, they didn’t and they regretted it. But at one point there’s just you that believes in what you’re doing and nobody else does.”

There is one thing that, at this stage, Toronto have yet to deliver. That’s a TV deal. While their games have been broadcast, they’re continuing to look for ways to land a big-money deal in North America.

Don’t expect Ottawa to do the same either, but Perez insists their games will be accessible worldwide.

“We’ll definitely have something in place for year one,” Perez said.

“We won’t be paying for anything. In this world, if you aren’t in with the streaming service you’re falling behind the times.

“We make it hard in our game to watch it sometimes, we have to make it all available in beautiful quality with at least extended highlights.

“They should go on YouTube with actual commentary on them, filmed in really high quality, not a shaky cameraman with a pillar in front of him. You should build a place where your games can be filmed, that should be as mandatory as the pitch and insurance. Because if nobody can see it, did it really happen?

“Look at the NRL, their stadiums aren’t packed, but what sets them apart is the quality of the footage and the presentation. If we improve that, more people will take it more seriously. Our sport is unbelievable but we’re not putting it out there and showcasing it.

“That’s what we should be investing it, making the sport more accessible. Who do I blame for that? It’s not easy to lay blame on anyone, but if I was building a competition from scratch, it would be built entirely around presentation and media.”