Is Rugby Football League Expansion to North America too Ambitious?

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On the surface, it would appear that the decision to reach across the pond to Canada and expand Britain's Rugby Football League foothold was a smashing success.

In just their fourth season, the Toronto Wolfpack began play in the Super League, the top level in Britain. In successive years, the side has defied odds that even the most optimistic of punter wouldn't have likely played at their online sports betting source.

In 2017, Toronto earned promotion from League 1 to the Rugby League Championship. In 2019, the Wolfpack defeated the Featherstone Rovers 24-6 in the Championship Play-Off Final before 9,974 at Toronto's Lamport Stadium to gain promotion to the Super League.

What's not to like about that?

Well, for starters, Toronto hasn't started off well in their first season of Super League competition. The Wolfpack are 0-6 in league matches, including a 66-12 loss to the Leeds Rhinos.

The addition of legendary All Blacks legend Sonny Bill Williams, while a publicity success, hasn't provided results on the pitch. Toronto's only victory thus far was an 18-0 shutout of the Huddersfield Giants in Round 5 of the Challenge Cup.

Toronto's first three slated home matches for 2020 were all postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nonetheless, the British invasion of rugby league into North America is poised to grow threefold.

The Ottawa Aces, situated in Canada's national capital, are scheduled to begin play in League 1 starting in 2021. Looking to expand into the United States, New York intends to enter a squad in the 2021 Challenge Cup, with plans to join League 1 for the 2022 season.

The lure of such a plan is obvious. The untold millions in sponsorship money and television rights to be tapped into via the lucrative North American market are certainly alluring. But gaining any level of inroads into these markets is much easier said than done.

New York already has numerous pro teams to compete with for market share in the Big Apple. There are two NFL teams, two MLB teams, two NBA teams, two NHL teams, as well as two sides in the MLS.

Even in Ottawa, there's the NHL Senators, the CFL RedBlacks and even the junior hockey 67's to contend with while trying to attract sponsors to rugby league, a game that clearly doesn't have a history in the area.

As the NASL displayed in the 1970s, bringing in aging superstars like Pele, Eusebio, Georgio Chinaglia, George Best and Gordon Banks to play in the league provided plenty of short-term hype. But that didn't translate into a positive manner by which soccer gained a place within the North American sporting landscape, and the NASL eventually faded away.

"In principle how would be anyone be opposed to expanding the footprint of a sport?" Sky Sports presenter and former Super League star Brian Carney asked inews.co.uk.

"But it seems that Toronto were admitted without any plan in place to develop the North American market. There is no plan. What are we trying to achieve?"

It's a valid question. Rugby league deserves acknowledgement for making this bold bid to become a transatlantic entity. But is all this expansion a case of too much, too soon?

Toronto's venture into rugby league, while dominant on the field, has not been without its problems. Majority owner David Argyle was forced to step down as chairman and CEO in 2019 amidst a racism scandal. Brian Noble, the Wolfpack's director of rugby since 2016, abruptly stepped down in February.

The team missed payroll in January 2019. Some bills have also gone unpaid. Unlike the British-based teams in the league, the Wolfpack don't get a cut of the Sky TV broadcast revenue. They've been unable to land a TV deal with either of Canada's two 24-hour sports networks, TSN or Sportsnet.

Toronto has the highest costs of any side in the league, coupled with the lowest revenue streams.

The Wolfpack fund their own TV production costs and broadcast over the internet, with some matches available via the CBC website. As well, they must subsidize the cost of opponents travelling to play in Toronto.

Is Ottawa A Capital Idea?

Eric Perez, founder and first CEO of the Wolfpack, put together a 26-member consortium and bought the license to England's Hemel Stags in September of 2018. Plans are to hold tryout camps in the fall to search for as many as 10 Canadian players to be part of the squad.

Ottawa, though, owns a lengthy history of failed sports franchises. The city twice lost its CFL team, and also its original NHL club. Five minor-pro baseball teams have also come and gone from Canada's capital.

A New York State of Mind

As well as competing in the next year's Challenge Cup, New York City Rugby League, as the team will be known, intend to partake in a series of exhibition matches against top sides, including some from Australia's National Rugby League in preparation for their 2022 League 1 debut.

According to the Daily Telegraph, New York hopes to line up friendlies with the North Queensland Cowboys, Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, and South Sydney Rabbitohs. New York will use Liverpool as their base when playing matches in Britain.