Tuesday, 5 February 2019

A Closer Look at: Toronto Wolfpack

When we wrote last year ahead of the visit of Toronto Wolfpack, we wrote about the building of a myth. A cash-fuelled juggernaut that, whilst generating a tsunami of coverage, told you nothing about the club's true substance.

One year - and one failed promotion punt later - and this has an eerie sense of deja-vu about it.  We're not sure that either of us really thought we'd be doing this again. Yet here we are.

Another sweep of the media hauled us down yet another rabbit hole -  but this one is different, with different forces at work. Indeed behind the fanfare, the furore and the flag-waving facade we see a hungry beast that craves two things: cash and exposure.

Notwithstanding a 2019 salary cap of $3.4 million (£2m), we see a club prepared to spend eye-watering amounts to secure that coverage: with the coverage it garners trumpeting just how much it's prepared to spend. An endless Möbius loop of hubris wrapped in a cult-like adherence to the party line (the majority of media we viewed just parroted the press-releases verbatim with no interpretation or comment).

But if you ask questions - dare to query the opacity of the Emperor's clothes - you will get slapped with being negative, a luddite anti-expansionist or merely jealous. In reality, it's none of these things.

It's just hard to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats when you have a supertanker amongst a fleet  of pedalos - how can anyone be grateful to get dragged along in its wake whilst frantically pedalling to stay afloat?

In the face of all these metaphors, we tried to join the dots in search of a redemption story...

Everything is fine
Of late, reality seems to have at least looked through the letterbox at Lamport Stadium, if not having actually knocked at the Wolfpack's door.

Firstly, Toronto missed a payroll payment in December - payments delayed until the 'ownership group' stepped in. David Argyle dismissed it as a 'blip', blaming a volatile economy in Q4 for making it "tough to create additional liquidity." Tell us about it mate, we had to get a dozen people to chip in £100 and shift a few football cards to help offset the cost of new posts - that's what we call a liquidity issue.

Argyle then went on to announce a new $10-million investment that should steady the good ship Toronto for a while: the new investors seemingly Canadian-owned purveyors of 'isotonic beverages, alcohol and wellness products', promising the shared-revenue distribution of Wolfpack-branded product lines in '... more than 40,000 outlets in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as well as online.' All sounds a bit Nathan Barley to us. Totally Mexico.

Judgement Day
Secondly, we read this week of Salford lawyering-up to try and get the now significantly overdue £20k fee they are owed following the transfer of performing drop-goal seal Gareth O'Brien.

While the Red Devils' prime the bailiffs, Toronto's 'head of  marketing & communications' Jon Pallett told League Weekly: "The Wolfpack are one of the biggest spenders on transfers in the last two years in the entire RFL structure and have been involved in a number of  signifiant transfer deals. In all of these we have kept up with our commitments on full." Ah, that's ok then...

But last summer, Mason Caton Brown's Wolfpack debut was delayed after his transfer fee to Wakefield Trinity ran late (Wakefield withheld his registration until the cash came through).

In a bizarre twist, back in November the club was served with a winding-up order by its own lawyers. According to seriousaboutrl.com, Toronto owed a six figure sum in unpaid legal fees - burned in successfully defending Ryan Bailey against a charge of refusing to take a drugs test after he feared that water he'd consumed could not be validated as uncontaminated. Money well spent there...

A Toronto spokesperson told League Weekly at the time: “This matter is in hand and the payment issue is being resolved. This relates to our small UK subsidiary company and not to Toronto Wolfpack in Canada.” Ah, the old 'registered in two jurisdictions' deal: interesting, given that the incident at the centre of the old Bailey case (Ryan, that is), took place at Lamport Stadium - which we're pretty sure is in Canada.

You can read the full Ryan Bailey anti-doping judgement by clicking here - it is a fascinating read, we recommend it.

TV Evangelists
Accounting/legal glitches apart, the Wolfpack's management team have been beavering away behind the scenes to put together their own TV deal, which will see all of their games shown on Sky.

According to multiple sources, TWP currently "... pays for the TV production of its own home games as it strives to build its brand..." claiming a reach of 140 million homes across 19 countries. It's impressive stuff - though we suspect they're just counting dishes, not actual eyeballs. Unsurprisingly, such big shiny numbers have caught the eye of the RFL’s commercial head Mark Foster. Speaking via TWP's website he said:  “We saw with the reaction to Sky’s live coverage of the £1M Game between the Wolfpack and London Broncos in Toronto last autumn what a massive boost that was to the profile of the Betfred Championship."

Sky's coverage? David Argyle says that staging last year's Million Pound Game cost the club $250,000 in TV production and other costs. So who's paying this particular piper?

On 2019's deal, Foster said: "This couldn’t have happened without the co-operation and support of Sky Sports and Toronto Wolfpack and we wish to thank both organisations for helping us to broadcast in the UK and around the world what will be a fantastic Championship as well as League One in 2019.”

Jeff Hagan, Toronto Wolfpack’s Director of Broadcast Production and Distribution (yes, they have one of those too), chipped in: "All matches are available for live publication on Sky Sports platforms in the UK while Canadian and global broadcasters are also able to pick up each game."

Speaking in tongues
What we found interesting is that, in describing the TV deal, there's some very subtle language going on: so let's un-(wolf)pack it.

In their statement "Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement" they say: "Toronto Wolfpack will produce all of the team’s Betfred Championship games in both the UK and Canada in 2019."  This reads to us like Toronto will effectively become the production company responsible for 'filming'/packaging each of their own games - thus becoming the content creator.

"... agreement has been reached for all matches to be available for live publication on Sky Sports platforms in the UK...." So, effectively, Sky becomes the 'broadcast platform' - the content distributor.

What we don't have are the details of the transaction between creator and distributor. Is Toronto paying for the airtime? Is Sky paying for the content? Or is Sky getting free content with access to potential new viewers? And who splits the advertising revenue how may ways? Whichever way it plays, the RFL and the other championship clubs appear to be missing from the loop here.

In terms of advertising revenue, that looks to have been locked-down in favour of Toronto's sponsors. They say: "The Pack’s diverse range of sponsors and partners will also benefit from an amplified reach and opportunity to access new markets, while opposing teams in the Betfred Championship will gain exposure from a minimum of two televised games against the Wolfpack."

Dying of exposure
As a former freelancer, big organisations used to tell me that if I did stuff for free, It'd lead to lots of 'valuable exposure' - but it's a fallacy: you can't pay your phone bill with 'exposure'. They get you for free and sell your efforts at a profit.

Yes, this broadcast deal gives the Championship the coverage it desperately needs, but it also means that casual TV sports viewer and ardent league fan alike will only ever see the Championship through a quite literal Toronto Wolfpack lens. Which by its very nature will provide a somewhat distorted view.

Your average couch potato will just be happy that there's 'rugby on the telly', but as anyone in the media knows, the producer dictates the narrative - and for 2019, all other clubs have non-speaking walk-on parts in Toronto's weekly broadcast to the masses.

So is there any salvation to be had?

The closest thing we found to common-sense comment comes from Jon Wilkin. Newly recruited to the Wolfpack, he comes with all the zeal of a convert, yet maintains what we consider to be an honest perspective. Speaking to Sky Sports ahead of last weekend's 14-nil win at York, he balances the need to raise the game's profile, whilst recognising the needs of the clubs that these 'global brands' must scramble over to put the game on a credible world stage.

He sees it as a crossroads for the game: "... how receptive we are to a new entity like Toronto - how receptive the game is to new ideas and a different way of thinking - will determine what the short-term future of rugby league looks like..."

Wilkin also recognises that there isn't just one way to drive expansion: "One is to push boundaries and establish new markets, and the other is to make sure your existing market is as strong as possible. I believe you can develop the current clubs and infrastructure and the grassroots system of our game, but also at the same time looking to new markets and exploring new markets. It has to be a two-pronged approach to growing the game."

"I grew up in Hull, I played 16 or 17 years in St Helens, I've been around traditional rugby league areas my whole life, and there is as much work needed in those areas as there is in new markets. The frustration from existing rugby league fans is they'd like to see potential investment brought back in."

Ultimately, he believes: "... we need to think bigger, but we also need to remember that the base of that pyramid needs to be strong. That's the game's challenge, but that's what's exciting as well."

We think it's pretty simple: those who drink at the well shouldn't forget those who dug it. But the problem remains that Toronto are bigger than the sport - and they know it. More cash, more resource, more leverage, more reach, more attitude and, as Wilkin puts it, more 'clout'. It opens doors that are closed to everyone else, allows them to bypass conventional channels and loads the dice in their favour on and off the field.

For us, it just feels a bit too exploitative. But the juggernaut rolls on...

League Weekly: "Devils Chase Pack for 'unpaid' O'Brien Fee" (John Davidson) - February 4 2019
thestar.com: "Missed payroll just a glitch, says Toronto Wolfpack" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019
mirror.co.uk: "Toronto Wolfpack keen to re-enter Challenge Cup if controversial bond is dropped" (Walker) - January 6 2019
bbc.co.uk: "Toronto Wolfpack: Financial investment will fix payroll issue" (January 7 2019)
nationalpost.com: "Toronto Wolfpack says missed payroll was just a blip, with new funds coming in" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019
torontowolfpack.com: "Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement"
torontowolfpack.com: "Toronto Wolfpack 2019 Games To Be Shown Live on GameTV" 
Loverugbyleague.com: "Paper Talk - Toronto face winding up order" - December 3 2018
seriousaboutrl.com: "Wolfpack UK to be wound up?" (Redhead) - December 3 2018
brandsmiths.co.uk/blog/21: "PRESS RELEASE – UKAD V RYAN BAILEY" - January 3 2018
Sport Resolutions (UK) Anti Doping Panel: SR/NADP/885/2017 "DECISION OF THE ANTI-DOPING TRIBUNAL" (Between UK Anti-Doping and Ryan Bailey) - December 8 2017
Wakefield Express: "Carter confirms Caton-Brown's transfer fee is now paid" (McKenna) - August 2018
seriousaboutrl.com: Wolfpack UK to be wound up? (Redhead) - December 3 2018
thegazette.co.uk/notice/3155541: "Petitions to Wind Up (Companies) - the Matter of TORONTO WOLFPACK (UK) LIMITED" - November 20 2018
skysports.com: "Jon Wilkin says Toronto Wolfpack would bring 'showbiz' factor to Super League" - January 31 2019