Let me make one thing perfectly clear before we start, this is not going to be a staunch defence of Toronto Wolfpack.
Their actions, most prominently in the last two weeks, have dragged rugby league’s name through the mud.
Their withdrawal from Super League less than a fortnight before the competition’s restart was horrendous timing, clearly avoidable and as a consequence has left a blotch not just on their own brand, but Super League’s too.
Their inability to pay their employees, who are set to be owed two months of wages by the weekend, exceptional circumstances or not, is wholly unacceptable. It has damaged their reputation and there is no justification for what their staff are enduring.
Not only that, but the fact they have been signing their existing players to new contracts, attempting, and succeeding, in signing new players for next year as recently as a few weeks ago, only makes the situation worse.
They have left a lot of people, their own people, in a state of limbo and there is absolutely no defending it. They deserve every piece of criticism coming their way for that.
Now let’s set the record straight. Toronto’s reasons for dropping out of the competition are understandable. With no furlough and no Sky money almost every club in this country would be dead. But it is the manner in which they have dropped out, not the reasons, that is so annoyingly damaging. It is little wonder the other clubs are angry with them.
This debacle has left a question mark over the long-term prospects of rugby league’s Trans-Atlantic club and until they can sort out their business and it is proved they can afford what they spend, there should be no sign of a comeback next year. The world is too fragile to allow Toronto back in if they cannot fulfil what they set out to spend.
But despite all of that, I still wholeheartedly believe losing Toronto Wolfpack from rugby league would be a monumental blow for the sport.
I ask you one simple question; what is there to gain from losing Toronto Wolfpack?
They bring no fans, I hear some of you say. Wrong. Not one club has recorded their lowest crowd of the season hosting Toronto during their first three seasons and 62% of the time clubs have pulled in above-average attendances.
They cost the sport too much money, I hear you cry. No, they don’t. In fact every Super League club is £150,000 better off for them being in the competition than any other club in the Championship this year, though it should be noted that could change if their withdrawal results in further rebates.
We need to grow the game in the heartlands first, some of you will claim. We’ve been trying that for 125 years. How’s that working out? How many of you, supporters of traditional, British clubs, can sit there hand on heart and say your club has done enough over the years to grow? Have they tried to thrive, or have they simply been content to survive?
Reality check, Toronto are already drawing more than most clubs in the Northern Hemisphere. They’ve been around three years.
As a side note. Of Super League’s remaining 11 clubs, do you know how many have seen their crowds grow over a ten-year period? Three. Do you know which of those three has seen the biggest growth? Catalans.
It’s laughable that supporters bemoan Toronto’s existence because it prevents them from travelling to one away game. Football fans in this country think nothing of travelling the length of the country on a Tuesday night yet rugby league fans moan if they have to travel the length of the M62 on a Thursday.
Being able to go to every game is a privilege but certainly not a badge of honour rugby league should be proud of. If you disagree, I hate to tell you, but the world does not revolve around you.
But if you really want some answers behind what they bring, here are just a few.
In their first three years, Toronto have attracted more international headlines than any other club. They have ensured there are thousands of new rugby league supporters in an area the sport did not previously exist. They made sure weekly Championship fixtures were shown on Sky Sports last year. Do you know the last time that happened? It was September 2011.
There is an obsession among fans to ask what Toronto bring to the sport but let me ask you this; what do half of the clubs in Super League bring to the sport in comparison? If we’re going to scrutinise one, let’s scrutinise all.
What’s so infuriating about this year is COVID-19 has prevented Toronto from demonstrating something they most certainly can bring to Super League, and that’s how to host a rugby league event.
I’m lucky enough to have attended two games at Lamport Stadium and they are, without question, two of the best atmospheres I have experienced at a regular match.
When you attend a Toronto Wolfpack match you’re attending an event. It is similar to a day at the races or a night at the darts, two of the most popular sporting attractions in this country.
How many of those are horse or darts enthusiasts? Hardly any. Do half the punters pay any attention to the action? Not really. Does it matter? Not at all. Would any club care if thousands walked through the gate and only a handful watched the game? Of course they wouldn’t.
And that’s where Toronto have nailed it and British rugby league hasn’t. At the vast majority of grounds in this country you’ll get a bit of music over the tannoy and a dance routine before the game kicks off and when that’s finished you go home. That’s fine for us purists but it’s not doing anything to attract a new generation of supporters or a big market of people simply after a good time. And we wonder why crowds are going down.
I truly believe once more clubs and more fans experience Toronto, they will get it.
Hull KR are the only current Super League club to have been and Danny McGuire couldn’t compliment the experience enough. Ask the players and the fans of the clubs who have been there and I guarantee you 99% will have nothing but good things to say.
What’s so frustrating about Toronto’s current situation is that it could be so good. They have potential that so many other clubs don’t. That, in my honest opinion, is a large part of the reason they face so much resentment. They are a threat to the aspirations of others.
They now have to face the criticism heading their way and you won’t find me defending them for that.
However, if, and right now it’s a big if, they can sort out this mess and ensure there is long-term viability behind the business, there is no doubt in my mind Toronto Wolfpack is an asset rugby league can’t afford to lose, and an asset it will one day come to realise the value of.