The future of the Toronto Wolfpack was thrown in doubt Monday with news the transatlantic rugby league team will sit out the rest of the 2020 Super League season.
Simply put, the club said it could not afford to continue this year.
“The COVID pandemic has presented unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges to the Wolfpack organization,” the team said in a statement. “Greatly reduced ticket, sponsorship, merchandise and game-day revenue streams have resulted from the loss of all 11 of the team’s home Super League games in Toronto.
“The Wolfpack would be left covering significant additional costs simply to complete a season of games in the U.K. including COVID testing, stadium rentals, medical costs and player pay increases to align with the rest of the league.”
The Wolfpack “fully intend to field a team in the 2021 season,” saying it will be working with Super League and the Rugby Football League “to understand this process moving into the next season.”
Rugby league authorities, with Super League now down to 10 English clubs and France’s Catalans Dragons and needing to redo a revamped schedule announced just last Thursday, seemed less certain about the future.
In a joint statement, the Super League and RFL said they were “very disappointed to learn that Toronto Wolfpack will not be able to fulfil their obligations to Super League 2020.”
“Super League Europe and the RFL have been in regular dialogue with the Wolfpack over the past weeks and months regarding the club’s ability to take part in the competition and firm assurances had been received as recently as last Thursday, July 16.
“The club’s decision is especially disappointing given the imminent restart of the season. Our immediate focus is on getting the season back underway on Aug. 2 and meeting the needs of our host broadcaster, Sky Sports. A discussion around the longer-term consequences and the future of the Wolfpack in Super League will commence shortly.”
Should Toronto be able to return in 2021, the question remains in what league would it be slotted. The RFL has yet to announce whether relegation remains in place during the disrupted 2020 season.
And Toronto fans are left wondering if they will ever see New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams in person. The former All Black was signed last November, drawing worldwide headlines.
The Wolfpack opened the vault to get him, with a two-year deal worth a total of US$9-million, with Williams getting an ownership stake, according to a source granted anonymity because they were not in a position to publicly divulge the information.
The Wolfpack have not played since March 11, when they blanked Huddersfield 18-0 in the fifth round of the Coral Challenge Cup. Play was suspended five days later because of the pandemic.
Toronto was to have resumed play Aug. 2 against Hull Kingston Rovers at Leeds Rhinos’ Emerald Headingley Stadium.
The Wolfpack, owned by Toronto-based Australian entrepreneur David Argyle, have been hit by one body-blow after another this season.
The latest was a visa issue, with Williams and six other imports facing having to leave Britain prematurely.
Australia’s Josh McCrone, Darcy Lussick and Blake Wallace, Australian-born Samoan international Ricky Leutele and New Zealand’s Williams, Chase Stanley and Bodene Thompson have visas that allow for six months in England over a year.
That’s not a problem when the Wolfpack are spending part of the season in Canada. But the pandemic has kept the players in England, meaning their visa expires at the end of the month.
Because the Wolfpack are Canadian-owned, they require different visas than overseas players employed by English clubs.
The departure of winger Liam Kay, the club’s first-ever signing and leading try-scorer, to Wakefield Trinity left the Toronto team with just 22 players. Subtracting the imports would leave the team with 15 or 16 players, given Stanley was late arriving this season – ironically because of red tape – and so had more time on his visa.
Rugby league teams dress 17 players for game, including four on the bench.
In recent days, there have been English reports of late paycheques. The club said Monday that player and staff payroll “has been guaranteed” by Argyle and “secured by a personal guarantee to the RFL.”
The team has had issues before, missing payroll in December, 2018.
The Wolfpack said ticket refunds will be issued to Ticketmaster “in the near future in order for the refund process to be fulfilled.”
The franchise has faced unique difficulties as a Canadian entry in the English league.
The team was not eligible for any of the £16-million ($27.4-million) in loans made available by the British government to help rugby league teams survive the pandemic.
The Wolfpack were already behind the eight-ball in terms of their agreement first to come into the league and then into Super League. The team does not get a cut of the Sky TV broadcast deal – worth about £2.3-million for each team a season.
That essentially covers the salary cap of £2.1-million, although that number can grow given teams are allowed two marquee players whose salary cap hit is limited to £150,000 a person.
Toronto’s marquee men are Williams and Leutele.
Toronto has not played at home since Oct. 5, 2019, when it won promotion to the Super League with a 24-6 victory over Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game before an announced sellout crowd of 9,974 – a Wolfpack record – at Lamport Stadium.
Under the original 2020 schedule, nine of Toronto’s first 10 games were to be played in England with the other in France – with the late start owing to the Canadian winter and the bubble over Lamport Stadium yet to come down. The Wolfpack were to play 11 of their last 19 games at home, with the season wrapping up Sept. 11.
Three other home games were to be played at neutral sites in England.
A second Canadian team, the Ottawa Aces, is set to follow the Wolfpack’s footsteps by entering the third-tier League 1 this season. The Ottawa president is Eric Perez, the Wolfpack’s founder and first CEO.