The Ontario Arrows are a short-term experiment with a long-term goal of making a big impact on rugby in Canada.
While the team will officially expire at the end of the month after a two-game set against the Canada Selects, which begins Friday at York University’s York Lions Stadium at 7 p.m., co-founder Bill Webb and his colleagues hope the Arrows will return permanently in 2019. The goal is to see the Toronto-based team become the first Canadian member of the new professional rugby league based in the United States, Major League Rugby.
“We’re running an exhibition season,” Webb said. “Call it really an R&D, due-diligence season before we decide whether we want to apply for league membership and make the investment required, which is significant.”
MLR is a seven-team league that is in its first season, and it operates under the same structure as Major League Soccer, in which each team owns a share of the league. Before Webb, the chief investment officer of Waypoint Investment Partners, which is a team investor and sponsor, and his fellow investors decide if they will pony up for an MLR franchise, they want to see if the Arrows can be competitive at that level. They also want to see if there is sufficient fan and sponsor interest.
The results so far are encouraging. Webb, Arrows general manager Mark Winokur and head coach Chris Silverthorn formed the team using the core of the Ontario Blues senior men’s team, the leading provincial amateur team operated by Rugby Ontario. In five games against U.S. clubs, the Arrows have a 3-1-1 record, which includes a win over the Utah Warriors and a tie against the Houston SaberCats, both MLR teams.
On the business side, the Arrows drew 1,600 fans to their first home game on May 5 at York Lions Stadium with almost no advance marketing. The team also has several corporate sponsors in addition to Waypoint.
“We said we need more information before we decide to apply [to MLR],” Webb said. “Let’s create a team and see how good we are. So far we’re pretty darn good.”
The Arrows and MLR operate in what’s known in the game as the rugby union code, which is the 15-player game. The other major rugby club in the Greater Toronto Area, the Toronto Wolfpack, plays what’s called rugby league, the 13-player game, in a league based in the United Kingdom.
It was not difficult to get players to come to the Arrows, Winokur said. About 60 per cent of the team is made up of university students, and the rest manage to fit the training and games in with their full-time jobs, as there is not enough money in North American rugby to earn a living.
“This was a pretty easy ask because [the players] were going to get tremendous competition and they were going to get to travel,” Winokur said. “It gives more players access to a professional training environment. They have strength and conditioning, diet and video analysis.
“They have access to more and better coaching, better games. We play teams down in the U.S., who would be our future partners. That’s all new to [Arrows players].”
The odd thing about the set against the Canada Selects is that some of the Arrows will switch sides and play for the national team. The Selects are made up of the national team minus the professional players who are in Europe playing for club teams.
The games against the Arrows will help the national coaches pick the best players for a set of three international games in June. The professional players will be released from their teams for those games against Scotland, Russia and the United States.
After the game at York University, the Arrows and Selects will finish the set on May 26 at Westhills Stadium in Langford, B.C.
Another benefit of putting a team into MLR, Webb says, would be the creation of more opportunities for rugby players in Canada to play the game at a much higher level.
“We think having professional rugby in North America is really important for the game both in Canada and the U.S.,” Webb said. “I don’t have an answer as to whether we will apply, not yet.
“But we’re pleased with what we’ve done on the field. We think we would be very competitive in the MLR, but the business of sport requires significant investment. We have to see if the appetite is there.”