Toronto Wolfpack’s dream of Super League was finally realised with victory over Featherstone Rovers in last year’s Championship Grand Final.
Following the signature of Sonny Bill Williams, and the retention of a hugely talented squad players, the Wolfpack are fancied to more than hold their own in Super League next season, but the ‘Toronto project’ continues to divide opinion.
Crowds that are regularly in excess of 7,000 prove that there is interest in the product, though many fans in the UK argue that the sport can’t sustain trans-continental expansion while so many grassroots clubs struggle.
But as more sports internationalise, can Rugby League afford to be left behind?
I reached out to three leading sports marketing professors to gain a fresh perspective on the issue.
Dr Alan Edwards is the programme director for sport business and innovation at Loughborough University.
Edwards played a significant role in the formation of the North Queensland Crushers around the time of the so-called Super League War, before, in his words, “Murdoch crushed us”.
He also had an involvement in the development of the sport on the Gold Coast, including the formation of the current Gold Coast Titans.
“It’s quite an interesting topic. My concern about the Wolfpack is that it is being funded by a rich businessman with an interest in the sport,” says Edwards.
“In an Australian context, we have seen teams set up in Perth and Adelaide and it became a difficult sell in that marketplace, because it didn’t have the cultural background to engage the local community and sustain it.
“The same happened with Melbourne Storm, in the heartland of the NRL, and it was successful, but it’s been successful mainly because there’s been a real push from News Corp to make sure it was.
“A lot of money was thrown at it, it’s a big market, and it worked. They put all their eggs in that basket.
“And there’s been a lot of talk recently, with folks like Russel Crowe adding their voices to the conversation, that more games should be played internationally.
“With Toronto, we have somebody who is interested now, but what is their long-term commitment?
“Are they engaging with grassroots development there or is their player base always going to be made up of imported players?
“If they are going to enter the competition then there needs to be something sustainable on a local, grassroots level, otherwise in three to five years I fear it may just die out.”
Dr Leah Gillooly is a senior lecturer in sports marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Gillooly argues that while Toronto presents obstacles for fans and players to overcome, there are lucrative advantages.
“Adding an international element can have benefits and it can have drawbacks,” she says.
“The benefits are that it’s a good way of growing the sport globally, but from an individual club’s perspective it is an away fixture that is prohibitive for them to attend.
“It isn’t like going from Wigan to Warrington.
“Catalans have successfully managed to get people to fly over to see their team play in Perpignan, but making the trip to the South of France is different from making the trip to Canada.
“Fans possibly struggle to see the advantages of it, as it impacts their experience and tires out their team’s players, but from a wider perspective, if Toronto attract more Canadian fans then that’s all the better.
“It creates more opportunities from a TV rights, merchandise and commercial perspective.”
Prof. Simon Chadwick is a professor of sports enterprise at Salford University Manchester.
He argues that Rugby League has no choice but to embrace an international element, and believes the RFL should grasp the opportunity for further expansion.
“One of the things that is really apparent at the moment is that all sports are globalising,” says Chadwick.
“For example, there has been a massive shift eastwards in Formula 1 to some of the more lucrative locations in that hemisphere, and in Rugby Union they are working really hard to promote the game in places like Georgia, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka.
“Sri Lanka is actually one of the fastest-growing markets for Rugby Union in the world and they’ve seen a rise in participation of 200% in the last decade.
“All sports are globalising and the logic therefore is that the sports who don’t look towards new territories, to build a fanbase, they will ultimately be the sports that struggle.
“There may be some kicking and screaming in the case of Toronto Wolfpack, but it is a necessary step for Rugby League to take, and what the sport needs to is go beyond Toronto.
“I’m not suggesting popping teams up in random cities across Europe, but what the RFL really needs to do is build interest in the sport among supporters in overseas territories as well as participants.”
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