Thursday, 22 March 2018

Friday's Coming: Toronto Wolfpack

Prologue
Match previews are usually pretty straightforward to write. A look through the club’s website, a quote or two from their local paper, a browse through their last couple of match reports, knit it together with a few opinions and - usually/hopefully  - we get an informative and entertaining window on the forthcoming opposition.

But this one has been very different. Having approached it in the usual way, we came up against a dizzying amount of hype and hyperbole. Journalists and publishers falling over themselves to find an angle from which they could marvel at the concept of a ‘the first transatlantic sports team’. And herein is the issue. The more you read, the more you see that story of the Toronto Wolfpack brand is one shaped by similar soundbites, carefully layered to build the picture they want you to see. And they are a ‘brand’ - in so much as they exist in your head long before you actually see them in the flesh.

One man who should know about the power of brands is CEO - and former advertising executive - Eric Perez. His quote from last year bears this out: "It's fair to say we're the hottest team media-wise in the world right now in rugby league. Everyone's got their eyes on us. We've got tons of interest globally”

They exist as much ‘in perception’ as they do on the field: the creation of a modern sporting mythology. Every League fan we’ve spoken to has an opinion on them. Whether you think of them as standard-bearers for extreme expansion in the untapped sporting nirvana of North America, or a bunch of brash mercenaries braying for attention in a sport desperate for any sort of media approbation, you’ll have an opinion too. And it might not reflect the shiny, happy picture that the zealots would have you admire.

So we ignored the hype, followed our nose - and went down the rabbit hole…


Welcome to Moose-Side
This Friday sees ‘Toronto’ Wolfpack come to to Spotland. Well, we say ‘Toronto’, but they’re more like the Harlem Globetrotters: a curiosity, a freak show, a Rugby League themed circus that rolls through your town and for which you should be endlessly grateful.

Having effectively relocated to the student suburbs of Fallowfield, Manchestoronto Wolfpack™ (MTW™) won’t be calling on their much vaunted sponsor Air Transat to haul themselves the 12 miles round the M60 on Friday tea-time.

Based at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Platt Lane Sports Complex, in South Manchester, one does feel compelled to question as to whether they are actually a ‘Canadian’ team other than in name.

This year not only will they will play all 11 away games in a single run, they’re also playing two ‘home’ games in the UK - one at the Magic Weekend v Toulouse and their game v Halifax at London Skolars (a cheaper trip for ‘Fax Fans, tho’). Chuck in the Summer Bash and their 650 Canadian season ticket holders will feel severely short-changed by their club playing the majority of their games in the UK.

But that’s all part of the pretence that MTW™, the RFL and a fawning media want us to buy into. The IDEA that there could be a transatlantic sports team shuttling backwards and forwards is pioneering, radical, exciting. The reality of a bunch of highly paid ex-Leigh players and a few old NRL faces running drills in the rain in Manchester seems somehow less romantic - and would glean far fewer column inches.

Their case isn’t helped by the appointment of former Salford CEO and Swinton Commercial Manager Martin Vickers as their ‘UK Business Development Manager’ with a brief to develop sporting and commercial relationships in the UK, suggesting that they have at least one eye on establishing/capitalising on their new Manchester roots.


Follow the money
The two things that everyone knows about MTW™ is that they are both ruthlessly ambitious and extremely well-funded.

Reports from both BBC Business and the Financial Times indicate that last season's budget was 3.4m Canadian dollars (about £2m), and this year’s is expected to be more. And that kind of spending power gives you some serious leverage at Championship level.

Since the end off last season MTW™ have shipped out 10 players and bought in 11 more. The three highest profile departures involved the spontaneous ‘release’ of the ‘Triumvirate of Trouble’ Fuifui Moimoi, Ryan Bailey and Dave Taylor. Australia’s Channel 7/sportingnews.com reported that the three were “reportedly sacked by the Toronto Wolfpack for sneaking out and missing curfew twice on the club's pre-season trip to Portugal”. The Canberra Times offered: “ twice breaking team protocols” as the reason for the sackings.

As an interesting epilogue to this incident, all three players have washed-up in unusual settings: Moimoi has been playing *nion at  Bradford & Bingley in the North 1 East league, the sixth tier of English rugger; Taylor has gone back to hometown Rockhampton to play for the Capras in the Queensland Cup; and Bailey has signed for Workington Town.

MTW’s™ most recent marquee acquisition is Salford full-back Gareth O’Brien. Having signed for an undisclosed and “significant” fee only a week ago, we can’t understand why any player would want to take a step down to an easier level to play for a Championship club owned by a multi-millionaire mining tycoon.

The ’tycoon’ in question being 57 year-old  David Argyle, Executive Chairman of Toronto-based oil shale development business Irati Energy Corp and CEO/Founder of Brazil Potash Corp. - a bloke with a finger in lots of mining, minerals and resources pies.

Unless you’re keen to hear his opinions on Potash mining in South America, Argyle is a hard man to find a quote from. But we’re assured that he’s in it for the long-term.  Speaking to BBC News back in February, MTW’s™ Australian General Manager Scott Lidbury commented: "David is 100% in it for the long term…He has a very strong vision, he is a big driver of Toronto as a regional centre of rugby excellence, for both codes."

Hmm, we’re never comfortable with League cosying up too close to *nion.  Though Argyle does have an impeccable League link: he started his career with BHP in Australia, who were sponsors of the Illawarra Steelers!

Having steamed through League 1 last year, MTW™ saw a financial loss  on the season.  But Lidbury went on the record in February to insist that it was all part of a longer-term business plan designed to plot a course to the cash-rich promised-land of Super League. In a BBC article he said: “Promotion this year is obviously the goal. We would be disappointed if we did not finish in the top four."


Pack-Man
Behind what is either the best or the most ridiculous idea Rugby League has ever had is Eric Perez. Depending on which version of the Wolfpack story you read, he accidentally caught Leeds v Bradford on TV via a hooky Sky-box in Gibraltar. Or whilst he was channel-hopping in Birmingham. His reaction now forms the foundation of the MTW™ creation myth “It was the most Canadian Sport that I’d ever seen, that I’d never heard of”:  defined by him as having speed, athleticism, non-stop play and a bit of biff for good measure.

Regardless of how it happened, there’s no zeal like the zeal of a convert - and Perez set out to not only take Rugby League to his homeland, but to build a bow-wave of enthusiasm that would resuscitate the Canadian national team, establish a domestic competition and create a top-flight team that would play in the highest tier available in the Northern Hemisphere.

Where pretty much everyone thought it sounded too far-fetched to be plausible, Perez  pushed on regardless: “I had a plan. Nobody understood what I was doing," he said in an Esquire interview. "Nobody believed it could happen. But I was determined, almost relentlessly, to make it happen.  Somehow I did."

When he pulled in 8,000 people to watch Canada take on the RAF in a friendly, Perez knew he might be onto something. Everything beyond that point just builds on the story. Pulling in financiers, sponsors  -  and the Paul Rowley/Brian Noble axis that fanned the spark into something viable. The open trials, the ‘Last tackle’ TV show to find local talent, the signing of FuiFui, the debut against Siddal…  you can’t deny, it’s been a juggernaut.

Perez took a huge risk, put his life on hold and put his solvency on the line. In one interview he was scarily candid: “There were times I didn’t even know how I was going to pay rent. I didn’t know if I was going to eat a meal that night. Should I have some 40-cent pasta or should I try to eat something with some meat in it. That’s how it was to start rugby league in Canada.”


Reality Bites
When you hear it framed in those terms, it’s hard not to be swept away by the momentum and the emotion of it.

But it also makes us think:

- If the ‘Toronto Wolfpack’ project feels so much like a facade - essentially a half decent British-based team, based in the North-West, building UK commercial relationships - travelling 12 miles for Friday night fixture in Rochdale and...
-  If it is a club rubbed out of the ether whose essence is defined by big spending, big names and a ruthless ambition to get into Super League at all costs, with two-thirds of the British game serving only as justifiable collateral damage and…
- If they’re not even going to set foot in Canada until May and the only thing that makes them ‘Toronto’ is a word under the badge…

... is the thing that Eric Perez thought he was going to get? Is this what he wanted? Is it honest? Authentic? Credible? Canadian?

Like Leeds and Bradford on Perez’s TV, Rugby League works best when it has a sense of place. The identity that comes with being anchored in a community where it means something to those it represents. The Wolfpack’s fundamental issue is that it is neither ‘of’ nor ‘in’ Toronto. It shows us nothing of the Canadian nature of the club; and it is disconnected from the community it was created to represent. As it stands, it fails on all fronts.

Despite admiring Perez’s passion, commitment and tenacity, it still feels like ‘Frakenstein Footy’ - built off-plan, rushed into existence, created for world domination -  a ruthless unstoppable force in search of its soul.  Indeed, when the monster realises that the angry villagers can’t see past its outward appearance it destroys the man who created it.  For Eric’s sake - if for no other reason - we hope that this ends differently.

Sources:
“Toronto Wolfpack plot financial path to Super League rugby”: Bill Wilson, BBC News 2 February 2018 
“Wolfpack kicks transatlantic rugby audiences into play”: Andy Bounds, Financial Times, April 14, 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack's grand ambitions”: Fiona Symon Financial Times, April 13, 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack hope to succeed where French failed”: Chris Irvine, Sunday Times February 4 2018
“Wolfpack Still Hunting”: League Express, 19 March 2018
“David Anthony Argyle P.Eng, MBA - Executive Profile & Biography”: Bloomberg.com, accessed March 20 2018
“Building companies to unlock superior value”: Forbes & Manhattan, Corporate Presentation 2017
“Toronto and Toulouse to play at Magic Weekend”: Matthew Shaw, Total Rugby League December 11 2017
“Transatlantic rugby club Toronto Wolfpack choose Manchester Metropolitan as UK base”: mmu.ac.uk, 20th November 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack cross the Atlantic for rugby league home opener”: Neil Davidson, Toronto Globe and Mail May 1 2017
“Wolfpack hoping to create a Canadian rugby revolution as trans-Atlantic team begins play in Toronto”: Tristan Fitzpatrick, The Athletic May 5, 2017
“How a jet-setting team from Toronto could save British Rugby League”: Ben Machell, Esquire 19 June 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack: Meet the first transatlantic rugby league team”: Dave Woods, BBC Sport 24 February 2017
“Wolfpack win Kingstone league, earn promotion to second division”: Morgan Campbell, Toronto Star, 9 September 2017
“Wolfpack move so hard to resist - OB” League Express, 19 March 2018