Just days before the 2023 Major League Rugby season kicks off, the Toronto Arrows, Canada’s lone representatives in the 12-team North American league, are breaking new ground in the world of rugby union.
Following in the footsteps of storied soccer clubs such as Spain’s FC Barcelona and, more recently, the Premier League’s Nottingham Forest, the Arrows will display the name of a not-for-profit organization on the front of their jerseys this season.
The deal, officially announced Tuesday, will see the acronym TIRF (Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation) emblazoned across the chests of the players both at home and on the road, beginning with Friday night’s away game against Rugby ATL.
The partnership represents what the club believes is the first time a professional rugby union club has embraced a not-for-profit as its principal shirt sponsor for an entire season. In soccer, Barcelona ended more than 100 years of having no jersey sponsor when it paid Unicef to use the name on its uniforms, while Forest recently inked a deal to have UN refugee agency UNHCR on its jerseys for the remainder of the current season.
“The Arrows have been long-time supporters of TIRF …” said Amanda Neale-Robinson, TIRF’s executive director. “So this just feels just feels like a really easy, good fit, and just really motivating for everybody.”
In many ways, the deal, which is a non-financial arrangement between the two sides, reaffirms the Arrows’ involvement with TIRF, which is now in its 11th year of existence. TIRF is Toronto’s largest rugby-focused community-development organization, taking the sport into schools and camps to expose children to the game. Last summer, for instance, more than 20,000 children got a taste of the sport during the May-August window.
TIRF also aims to try to remove financial hurdles for kids who want to pursue the sport at higher levels, whether they be provincial or post-secondary, with some achieving national-team recognition. Former Arrows Josiah Morra and Marcello Wainwright both came through TIRF, while on the women’s side, Asia Hogan-Rochester plays for Canada in the sevens format of the sport, winning a gold medal at the 2019 Pan-Am Games.
“[Arrows owner] Bill Webb was very early in helping us with the beginnings of TIRF,” said TIRF co-founder and director Bill DiNardo. “They actually started with a view that there were these terrific athletes and communities that just needed an opportunity to play and some of them could get on pathways.”
Webb, who saw his own career end with a knee injury while playing for one of the representative teams for England’s Wasps Rugby Football Club back in the 1980s, is very much one of the driving forces for the game in this country.
With a commitment to using Canada’s only professional rugby union club to help provide a pathway and a destination for Canadian talent, Webb is very much focused on providing what he calls “easy on-ramps” for players to find their way in the sport that he loves so dearly.
While he says reaction to the groundbreaking shirt sponsorship has been “positive and supportive” from the other 11 clubs, all of which are located in the United States, the best reaction he has got has been from his players.
“The guys, with regard to this TIRF deal, they love it,” he said. “Because the Canadian guys, which is 70 per cent of our roster, every single one of them knows what TIRF is. They’ve known for a long time, and they can go a) It looks cool, it’s unique and b) they know it has substance it’s not some opportunistic [thing].”
The team’s principal shirt sponsors before this season were Honda and online gambling company Coolbet, while Waypoint Investment Partners Inc., where Webb is a partner, adorned the shirt in its inaugural campaign in 2018, when the team was called the Ontario Arrows.
“Now in the partnership with the Arrows we can give them a destination, whether that’s to sit and watch the game or to one day end up on the field,” DiNardo said. “It’s a massive untapped market which is kind of new Canadians and Canadians that have been blocked out of sport because of financial issues.”
The sponsorship deal is slated to run for the entirety of the 2023 season, though both sides have left open the possibility of seeing this trailblazing partnership continue into future seasons.
Winning will likely help. After the Arrows made the playoff semi-finals in their first official MLR season in 2019, a combination of COVID-19 cancellation, playing a season out of Atlanta because of cross-border travel woes and a sub-par 2022 have seen them fail to regain the heights of that first year.
“Just because we’re not for profit, I don’t want you to think we’re not a results-oriented organization,” DiNardo joked. “We told Bill if you’re putting our logo on there, we expect a serious run this year, or it’s going be a tough conversation at the end of the year because we measure results and outcomes.”