The Toronto Wolfpack have lost their bid for reinstatement to Super League next year.
The decision was made by the other 11 Super League teams, the Rugby Football League and Super League chief executive Robert Elstone.
“On the evidence presented to us, it would not be right for the development of the competition for Super League to accommodate a team in Canada in 2021,” Elstone said in a statement Monday.
“Every opportunity has been given to Toronto Wolfpack to provide the assurances our clubs need. However, 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.”
Elstone also cited the results of a Super League-appointed committee that reviewed commercial opportunities for the rugby league in Canada.
"Its findings were unanimous – 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.
“Separately, it was also apparent that no assessment of the scale and accessibility of the commercial growth that might accrue to the sport from entering the Canadian market was ever completed prior to the club’s first entry into the sport.”
Super League said it will meet to decide whether the 2021 competition will go ahead with 11 or 12 teams.
The transatlantic Toronto team has been in limbo since standing down July 20, saying it could not afford to play the remainder of the season with the pandemic preventing games from being played in Canada. Players and staff have not been paid since June 10.
Majority owner David Argyle, unable to fund the club, stepped away. Toronto businessman Carlo LiVolsi stepped forward as a potential new owner, providing the club was allowed to remain in the English top tier.
He also wanted Toronto to get its share of the central distribution funding that is currently split by the other 11 clubs. Drawn primarily from TV revenue with a portion from sponsorships, that is worth about £2.3-million ($3.9-million) a team in a normal year.
Giving Toronto its share would, of course, reduce the amount the other clubs got.
In a last-ditch effort, LiVolsi offered to play the 2021 season entirely in Britain, a move he said that would “allow us time to assess and evaluate the business in Canada ahead of achieving the 2022 to 2025 budget/forecast detailed in the original plan.”
The future of the club is now very much in doubt. The franchise could try to start again in the lower leagues – the domain of the Rugby Football League, which is believed to have supported Wolfpack efforts to win reinstatement.
But LiVolsi has made it clear he is not interested in that route. And who would want to give it a second go, given the team’s losses – the missed payroll alone is estimated to reach £1-million ($1.7-million) by year’s end – and lack of interest from Super League?
Wolfpack founder Eric Perez moved on some time ago. He is now in charge of the Ottawa Aces, the former Hemel Stags franchise that has moved to Canada and is slated to play in the Betfred League 1, the third tier of English rugby league, next year.
That’s where Toronto started in 2017. Fielding a small but full-time squad against part-timers, Toronto won promotion to the second-tier Championship by winning 15 straight games and outscoring the opposition 916-157.
There was more success in the Championship. Toronto topped the regular-season table at 20-2-1 in 2018, but fell one win short of reaching Super League, losing the Million Pound Game 4-2 to the London Broncos.
Under new coach Brian McDermott, the Wolfpack dominated the 2019 Championship, finishing atop the standings at 26-1-0. And this time, Toronto sealed the deal by defeating the Featherstone Rovers 24-6 to earn promotion to the top tier.
Off the field, Argyle was willing to spend money to make money. But only the first part of that equation happened.
The Wolfpack made headlines worldwide by signing former All Black Sonny Bill Williams last November to a rich two-year deal. Argyle hoped to take the team to European cities such as Madrid to showcase the brand and Williams, now 35, provided instant worldwide recognition.
The team had been paying the TV production costs to air home and away games on Sky Sports in Britain in a bid to raise its profile. There were danger signs late in the 2019 season, when Toronto cut back on its TV broadcasts to save money.
While the club set lower-league attendance records at the 9,600-capacity Lamport Stadium, there were questions over how many tickets had been given away. Still, the team built an enthusiastic following. And the franchise’s small front office and training staff worked long hours to keep the project on track.
Argyle, a Toronto-based Australian entrepreneur specializing in mining and resources in emerging markets, dug deep into his pockets to keep the team afloat. The Wolfpack were a labour of love for him.
His smile filled Lamport as he clutched a giant bottle of champagne when the team won promotion.
Eventually, the cupboard went bare and friends and business associates told him it was time to step away.
On the playing field, the top tier proved challenging. Toronto was 0-6-0 but coming off a Challenge Cup win over Super League’s Huddersfield when play was suspended in mid-March owing to the pandemic.
Super League resumed play with 11 teams on Aug. 2, expunging Toronto’s results from the standings.
While rugby league accepted Toronto into the fold, it did so with reservations. The Wolfpack’s entry deal did it few favours. Salary cap rules were not written for a North American franchise without the academy development path others clubs could use to ease restrictions.
The Wolfpack took their first public step in April, 2016, billing themselves as the first major-league transatlantic pro sports team.
“It’s a leap for faith for all concerned,” Nigel Wood, chief executive of the Rugby Football League, said at the time.
“I think there’s every chance [at success]. I think there’s more reasons to celebrate than there is to be fearful. ... The world is shrinking,” added Wood, a hulking former rugby league player.
In truth, the team was based in England. Players maintained their homes there and had a training base. While in Canada, the players stayed in college accommodations.
They loved it. Toronto was a big new playground for the players, most of whom came from the north of England.
And Lamport proved to be a welcoming home. The 45-year-old stadium with its concrete benches and no protection from the elements mirrored the team – gritty, functional and no-frills. The Wolfpack filled both endzones with craft beer tents and hospitality zones.
The loudest cheers came from the stands when the ball bounced off a passing streetcar during conversion attempts. Wolfpack players would do a lap of the stadium after games, shaking hands, posing for pictures or gulping a beer handed their way.
Toronto paid for the visiting teams' travel and accommodation, so was facing demanding overhead from the get-go.
But the physicality of rugby league – the 13-player version of code as opposed to 15-player rugby union – drew fans new and old.
“My teams entertain, we’re known for entertaining,” said inaugural Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley, a former England hooker who lasted two seasons at the helm. “They’ll be bloodshed, there’ll be collisions.”
Former Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble, a legendary former player and coach, called rugby league “the NFL with MMA.”
McDermott, the decorated former Leeds Rhinos coach who succeeded Rowley after the 2019 season, led the Wolfpack to its ultimate goal of Super League. But he later acknowledged the franchise made mistakes on and off the field, was underprepared for promotion to the top tier and had “damaged bridges within the game.”
He asked for a second chance, saying his team would do better. And that the sport and Super League were better with Toronto part of it.
A majority disagreed.
McDermott declined to comment Monday, other than to say he was feeling “pretty flat and disappointed.”