Skip to main content

When the Toronto Wolfpack launched four years ago, the team had high hopes of taking England’s Rugby Football League by storm and serving as a template for how a transatlantic sports franchise could operate.

But now the Wolfpack are on the verge of collapsing, brought down by a failed business model and the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut stadiums and cut off badly needed revenue.

The critical blow came on Monday when the Wolfpack lost a bid to rejoin the Betfred Super League, which the team quit in July because of mounting financial losses. Representatives from the division’s 11 remaining clubs overwhelmingly rejected a pitch to readmit the Wolfpack under prospective new owner Carlo LiVolsi, a Toronto businessman who runs a company called Wolf Grooming, which specializes in haircare products for men.

LiVolsi planned to take over the team if it was readmitted to the Super League. In a presentation to the league’s board on Monday, he vowed to pay off the club’s debt and cover future losses, which he estimated would be around £3.5-million ($5.9-million) over the next three years. He also promised to play all Wolfpack games in England in 2021 to avoid any logistical problems caused by travelling back and forth from Canada during the pandemic.

The rival executives weren’t convinced. Many doubted the viability of LiVolsi’s business plan and they questioned his financial wherewithal. They also poured cold water on his proposal that the Super League teams help market Wolf Grooming products in Britain in return for a share of future profits.

“Our review of the club’s recent submission identified a number of areas of concern, particularly regarding the aggressive revenue targets on which the financial forecasts are based,” Super League’s executive chairman Robert Elstone said in a statement Monday. He added that a committee of the league’s board conducted an independent review and concluded that “operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term.”

The decision means LiVolsi won’t acquire the team and it will remain in the hands of majority owner David Argyle, who helped launch the Wolfpack in 2016, but stopped funding it last summer. He’s on the hook for roughly £3-million ($5.1-million) in debts, including around £500,000 ($853,000) in wages owed to players and staff who haven’t been paid since June.

The team “is dead right now unless David changes his mind about reviving it or somebody else comes forward and says, ‘I’m willing to take on the team,’ ” said Bob Hunter, the club’s chairman and chief executive. “The challenge is you’ve got to settle up the player payroll. … It’s a very, very tough situation."

Even if Toronto could find a new owner, it would have to apply to compete in rugby league’s lower divisions. And there’s no certainty the application would be accepted given the Canadian franchise’s financial history.

It’s a dramatic end to what had been a remarkable story.

The Wolfpack started playing in 2017 and advanced quickly through League One and the Championship. The team reached the Super League last year after winning a dramatic game against the Featherstone Rovers in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,974 at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium.

Everything seemed set for a perfect launch into the sport’s upper echelon. The team was on a winning streak and had attracted a small, but passionate fan base in Toronto that loved the fast pace of rugby league, which differs from the more familiar rugby union (13 players instead of 15 in rugby union). The Wolfpack had also shaken up the league by signing New Zealand superstar Sonny Bill Williams to a two-year contract worth $9-million.

But then reality hit and Toronto was beset by difficulties before the 2020 season even started. The club wasn’t eligible for a share of the league’s broadcast revenue, which totalled around £1.5-million ($2.6-million) a team. Toronto also didn’t have access to academy players, like other teams, and had to compete with a 23-man roster, seven fewer than its rivals.

The Wolfpack got off to a poor start and lost its opening six games. When the pandemic hit in March, the league shut down. Revenue dried up and Toronto couldn’t apply for financial relief from the British government because the club was considered a foreign entity. By June, Argyle had stopped paying player wages and the team pulled out of Super League when it resumed play in August.

“The reality is that we were underfunded,” Hunter said. “David did not have the resources to sustain this long term. Then COVID hit.”

Hunter said he understood Argyle’s decision to step down and he hoped the bills will be paid. “David has made a commitment, hopefully it comes through, on trying to settle up some of our past sins," he said. “It would have been good to get a chance to sort of revive it, rebuild it and make it a real going concern. Unfortunately we don’t get that chance.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe